The school office called to say they had to send students home early, due to the imminent political rallies in the city square. The unrest in the country was growing day by day, with people congregating in the thousands, their united voices stronger than ever before, yet so far no-one had been physically harmed. My mind has been instilled with Shakespeare’s wisdom and the consequences of the fury of a mob and I am, therefore, worried. The Residence was at a distance of some forty kilometres away from the International School and the city centre, my heart begins to race. I try DC’s number… busy! I try the mission numbers, one by one… busy, busy, busy! I cannot get through to the driver either. It just gets to you. Far away from the homeland, in the middle of nowhere, such moments are really distressing. Then Suren rings. “Ma, I’ll have to go to Dad’s office. Okay?” I nod into the phone. Yes, thank you, thank you, the Ones above! I need not have been so panic-stricken. Madagascar is a peaceful country and its people the nicest you can imagine. Still, this unusual political unrest is worrisome.
Our arrival here had been delayed for over a month, due to the airport being shut down after a failed attempted coup. We finally did disembark in the country, but amidst political turmoil. DC was asked to present credentials the very next day. Thankfully, I could iron his bundgala, with my faithful travelling iron, that had traversed the oceans with me, all the way from the isthmus of Panama, a decade earlier. As it turns out, DC is the last envoy to present credentials to the now endangered President. The country is in a state of flux as the new President settles into his proclaimed role and the former President is swiftly flown out of the country. The supermarket shelves run bare. Petrol is scarce. Residents resort to panic buying. Manic moments. Mineral water, medicines, rolls of toilet paper, cooking oil… everything flies off the counters. Petrol is being sold in half litre water bottles, even cooking oil bottles, at exorbitant prices. A sense of unease prevails in the city.
The phone rings shrilly and makes my skin crawl. Time is suspended. “Yes?” There is no identity checker. It is DC. “We’re going to be very late, there is too much happening. Talk to Suren,” says DC, tersely, in his inimitable manner. “Ma, I’m hungry!!” Suren sounds tired and exasperated. An hour’s drive to school each morning at six-thirty and a lonely hour’s ride back, daily, is not easy for one so young. His having to go to his father’s office just means inordinate delay. “Tell Dad to order something to eat right now or else you may not get anything later. And try to finish your homework, love you.” The maids want to stay back after hours, but I tell them to go home. The buses ply infrequently after six in the evening and our private car is in town at the mission, so I cannot have them dropped off later. Our Indian-Jeeves, Viru is with me and the local guards have arrived, so I am not concerned about safety. I settle down in the Lazy-Boy chair in one corner of the TV room, curl my feet under me and decide to watch an Indian soap opera or two till they come home. Dish TV is a boon at times like this! I did not realise how late it was until Viru comes and says, “Maa, its past ten! What shall we do?”
Back home in our state of Orissa, now called Odisha, the domestic helpers usually call the lady of the house Maa, Mother and the head of the household, Babu, reminiscent of colonial times. I try DC’s mobile phone, but he does not answer. I try his official driver’s number, our private car’s driver, but there is no response from any of them. Now I do begin to worry. It is a very long drive from the centre of the city to its outskirts where we reside. The traffic on the two main roads in and out of the city are usually bumper-to-bumper and getting anywhere at any given time is always unpredictable. And nowadays, unsafe too. Finally, both cars draw up. It is almost 11:30 pm as the main door opens. Suren rushes forward, his face ash-stricken, his hands are cold. “What happened?” I cry aghast. “They held us up. Thousands of them, just around the corner!” He is shivering, so I draw him close to comfort him. “They just stood there, made us get out of the car and started checking it and our own car too.”
DC enters, slightly flustered. He reaches for the landline. I comprehend the serious nature of the incident and do not question him. Within the hour, a news bulletin admonishes the people and requests them to be law-abiding citizens and to remember the importance of protocol, especially where dignitaries were concerned. There were no guns, only sticks and over a thousand people stretching into the four corners of the forked road, barely five kilometres from our residence. The crowd was searching for a PIO, a Person of Indian Origin, but a naturalised citizen of Madagascar. I am unsure why history is flitting through my mind as I listen to the dangerous incident unfold. Indian traders arrived in Madagascar in the 19th century, mainly from the western coast of Gujarat. Their descendants are called karana, even bania, in a slightly derogatory manner, by the locals and their former colonial masters.
It is rumoured that the karanas control almost half of the country’s economy and are easy prey, to hold for ransom, during strife or political unrest. Madagascar, the fourth largest island in the world, just off the east coast of Africa, was uninhabited until two thousand years ago. It has always been in the crosscurrents of international trade. The first settlers came from Indonesia and Malaysia. In the African context, its culture is somewhat isolated and vocabulary links are few. The first Europeans came ashore in 1500, though their impact on its history would only be felt several hundred years later. The Malagasy people were divided into small clans. Until the French occupation in 1895, the English language was widely used in diplomacy among the educated. Their King Radama invited missionaries from England in 1818 to teach the people useful trades.
In the end, after dinner and a hot cup of tea, I inform Suren that he would stay home for a few days, until there was some semblance of peace and order. As we walk towards his room, I wonder if he would be able to dislodge this unpleasant incident from his mind and instead dream of the dinosaur eggs purported to be buried just below us in the ocean? Or the large-eyed, furry-tailed lemurs, the spirits of the dead, that inhabit this wondrous land? Or would he stroll amongst giant tortoises and the most unusual and endangered flora and fauna in the world? The giant Roc, in Sinbad the Sailor, is supposed to have originated here. It is also mentioned in the accounts of his travels by Marco Polo. The legend is based on the discoveries of the huge eggs of the flightless Aepyornis bird of Madagascar. This ‘Elephant Bird’ (an oxymoron my former students would undoubtedly have loved), grew to weigh half a ton and laid eggs up to two feet long! Alas, the Bird could not fly and there are no elephants in Madagascar. We whisper into the early hours of the morning. My son is sleepy. I think of some kabary, a traditional form of oral literature, where the speaker talks about a subject without direct reference. “While listening to a kabary well-spoken, one fails to notice the fleas that bite one!” I pinch him slightly and allow for the loud screech that ensues! He smiles. “You can trap an ox by its horns and a man by his words.” True! Suren is ten years old.
Dawn breaks in splendour and last night’s incident seems surreal. DC leaves for the office while Suren sleeps, perchance to dream on…. I let him be.
Days pass. Months. The chill sets in August. It is time for the Famadihana, the turning of the bones, an ancient ritual that is a second burial. Held every ten years, the bones are taken out from the grave and wrapped in new hand-woven silk, called lamba. The lamba is a beautiful fabric but may not be worn by the living. Martha, our helper, has to perform this ceremony and will be away for three days. She has to call the ombiasy, a traditional healer, to perform the zebu sacrifice. She must buy new mats, invite extended family members, buy the lamba cloth and hire a band of musicians. I slip her some extra money. She tells me there will be much festivity and that the ceremony begins at sunset. There must be no silence during this ancestral worship. It is fady, a system of local taboos, that help maintain good relations with their ancestors. No one must mention the name of the deceased. He or she is addressed by different names. Fady may differ from place to place. It may be fady to walk past a certain tree, or whistle on a particular patch of land, or to eat pork or even talk about crocodiles. Ancestors are revered and destiny, Vintana, like our Indian Karma, plays an important role in daily life.
I tick off that night’s incident as Karma. There is an eerie sense of calm in the ensuing months. Suddenly, there are a spate of kidnappings…. A is picked from a busy city street intersection. His wife is asked for a million dollars in ransom by a very polite and apologetic voice, while she hears her husband’s muffled screams of pain in the background. B’s two young children are picked up on their way back from school, as their car came down the hill towards their home, barely a few metres away. They are not ill-treated, and a woman feeds them till their release a week later. The family relocates immediately to another unnamed region. C and his brother are at their gate when a car swerves into theirs. They are taken hostage and released after a tidy sum of money changes hands. An unusual incident occurs at an expatriate dinner party. The intruders wear masks and ask everyone to lie on the floor. They take away jewellery, cash, even the men’s ties!
Chilling. Unbelievable. True.
We smile unsurely.
I want to home-school Suren or return to India. DC shakes his head. So, Suren goes to school regularly. I stay on.
This could be Paradise.
Or the Edge of Darkness.
Or just another day for me in the Diaspora?
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