Potco gazed fondly at the sparkling blue Indian Ocean which contained such a rich history.
He was a reader of history.
Most of all, he loved to read about great kingdoms and empires throughout history: The Roman Empire, The Assyrian Empire, The Ottoman Empire, The Byzantine Empire, and most of all of all the empires that Potco loved to read about, was The British Empire.
As someone from an Indian immigrant family in what was once The British Raj in India, Potco’s love of reading about The British Empire had a direct relevance to the history of his own family.
His late father had emigrated to Kenya from a small village in Kathiawar in the state of Gujarat in western India. His father had boarded a cargo ship to Mombasa on the east coast of Kenya, and had settled in Mombasa and built a small, profitable and respectable grocery business. Potco was proud of his father’s accomplishments as a hard working Indian immigrant. His father loved his family, never complained, worked tirelessly, and was forgiving and even admiring of the positive aspects of colonialism. His father would often say to Potco and his brother Vinoo:
“You think so that us Indians could have done it to make railways and postal service in India like Britishers, isn’t it? No, no betha, we Indians did not to know how to be organized you see? That was to be the Britishers strength now, isn’t it? Organization. Now, who all taught Britishers organization? Remember, I told you? Who it was?”
“Romans!” exclaimed Potco and his brother Vinoo to their father.
“Roman Empire, isn’t it?” smiled their father, approvingly.
Potco and Vinoo’s father was not a learned man.
He had left school at the age of eleven to labor in the Kathiawar salt mines after his own father, a Kathiawar salt miner since childhood, and passed on.
His mother died just five years later, and Potco’s father, Sashi Patel, at the age of sixteen, decided to make the courageous move to board a cargo ship to Mombasa and emigrate there. He had a nine year-old brother, Vishnu, who he left in the care of an aunt, promising the aunt he would send her money from Mombasa once he had ‘made his fortune’. Potco’s father got a job with an Indian grocer in Mombasa when he emigrated there, and he learned the grocery trade from the ground up. A few years later, after traveling home to Kathiawar to marry a local girl from his village that his aunt had arranged for him to marry, Potco’s father retuned to Mombasa, where he had now set up his own grocery business, going into partnership with his former employer.
The business made a good living for the family, but not good enough for Potco and Vinoo to stay in school. Both sons had to drop out of school at the age of fourteen and join their father in the grocery business.
Although it broke Potco’s father’s heart that he could not afford to keep his boys in school, his immigrant story gave him a rich perspective on the matter.
After all, if he had stayed in Kathiawar and never emigrated to Mombasa, his own two sons would likely have also had to work in the salt mines. At least now, Sashi’s boys were working in a family business that he had built for them as their legacy, and which they would inherit when he passed on. At least now, his boys were learning the trade of being a grocer, which would serve them well and make them independent and enterprising.
Potco’s father Sashi, always looked on the bright side and his sunny disposition was the consistent kind, the kind that has known great hardship and severe trials and grows out of overcoming those hardships and trials with hard work and a heart filled with gratitude for opportunities received. That toilsome work ethic and that magnanimous attitude of gratitude, was the replicated story of the Indian immigrant in so many far-flung former outposts of the vast British Empire, from Kenya to Tanzania to Fiji to Burma to Hong Kong to Trinidad.
Potco’s father would have loved to have had his boys stay in school and become learned and educated men. However, it was not feasible because he needed the manpower.
Manpower was what had built up the successful Indian immigrant network throughout the British Empire. Manpower, made manifest in the tireless work ethic, hardihood and solidarity of fathers and sons and brothers. A man began and built a business and toiled away at his work, knowing that his labor was a long-term investment in the life of his sons and the sons of his sons.
That was the perspective that drove his ambition, and gave him a sense of buoyancy and a heart filled with hope for the future.
The business he was building was a vehicle for him to express his love for his family.
The women in the family, the wives and the sisters, understood this as well.
Potco’s mother was as supportive and loyal a wife to his father, as a man could ever hope for. And Potco and his brother Vinoo’s two sisters had always helped their mother with the cooking and the chores in the household until they had become of age to become married within the Indian community in Mombasa.
Within this systemic support structure of fathers and sons, of wives and husbands, brothers and sisters, was the repeated weaving and threading of the intricate and flourishing fabric of enlightened enterprise in the dispersed diasporas of Indians throughout the vast British Empire.
These people never gave up.
Potco’s father was a diligent taskmaster and mentor to his two boys, who served long hours of apprenticeship in his grocery store. He did not permit any complaining. He was not raising namby-pamby boys. Whenever there was the slightest whiff of whining from Potco or Vinoo, whenever there was the slightest sense that they wanted to give up working for the day, their father would cheerily quote Winston Churchill:
“Now what all Churchill said, isn’t it? He to said: ‘Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never – in nothing great or small, large or petty!’”
As his boys stocked the shelves of the grocery store with fresh Mombasa mangos and unpacked wooden crates laden with cans of desiccated coconut from Goa and condensed milk from England, and stacked up gunny sacks of Basmati Rice, Potco’s father looked at this boys adoringly, knowing that, by the good graces of providence, they did not have to toil in the torturous salt mines of Kathiawar as his own father had to from the age of eleven, like his father before him, and his own father before him.
“Now boys – you know the story about salt from the Roman Empire, isn’t it?”
The boys were tired and in no mood to banter with their tirelessly cheerful father. Undaunted, Potco’s father blazed onward and migrated toward his story:
“Now boys, you see, let me tell you about salt because it is to be too good, you see? Now you see in Roman Empire good old days, salt, it was first class item, you see?”
As the boys worked away, their father explained how, in ancient Rome, salt was a rare and prized commodity and how a rich man in Roman times sat near the salt on the dinner table. The rich Roman placed his favored dinner guest near the salt on the table and the less favored dinner guests at a distance from the salt. It was a blatant form of Roman empirical snobbery.
Potco’s father turned to him and asked: “Now, what all the Roman rich man called his favorite dinner guests in Roman caste system?’
“Above the salt” replied Potco, automatically.
“Very good! And you Vinoo – what all the Roman rich man called his not very favorite dinner guests in Roman caste system?’”
“Below the salt” replied Vinoo.
“Very good Vinoo betha! Now, once you boys are to finish fagiyaing (to broom and sweep) the floor, and we have Gujarati daal and Basmati rice dinner with your sisters and your mother, I can tell you story of Salt Satyagraha that Gandhiji marched, you see? Too good story it is. Too good! Mahatma Gandhi marched with salt in Gujarat from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmadabad all the way to Dandi in Indian Ocean.”
That evening at dinner, Potco’s father, Sashi Patel, proudly and fondly told his wife and two daughters and two sons, the story of Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March of 1930, a nonviolent act of civil disobedience or Satyagraha, that defied the British monopoly and hefty taxes on salt in India.
“Now what all Gandhiji said when he reached the Indian Ocean and made handful of salt?” asked Sashi Patel to his children.
“Gandhiji said,” ventured the young Potco proudly, “’This salt is from the Indian Ocean. Let every Indian claim it as his own.’”
“Wawa!” exclaimed the ever enthusiastic and sunny Sashi Patel admiringly, “Now that is how Mahatma Gandhi fought The British Empire isn’t it? With handful of salt!”
That night, the ever jovial and kind hearted Sashi Patel, proud husband to his adoring wife, and proud father of two boys and two girls, died peacefully in his sleep. The next morning, Sashi Patel’s weeping widow, meekly got on the telephone to the Hindu Brahmin priest at their local Hindu temple in Mombasa, and asked the priest to come over to pray for Sashi Patel’s soul and to perform the cremation ceremonies.
Vishnu Patel, younger brother of the recently deceased Sashi Patel, and uncle to Potco and his brother Vinoo, loved to travel by train.
Vishnu sat quietly and contemplatively on the train from Nairobi, where he made his home, to Mombasa, to attend the funeral of his beloved and departed brother Sashi. The steady hum and rhythmic resonance of the moving train had a soothing effect upon Vishnu, an unassuming and simple man, who was now one of the most successful industrialists in East Africa.
Vishnu reflected back to his childhood in his small village in Kathiawar in the state of Gujarat, with his beloved brother Sashi.
He recalled the day, when Sashi was sixteen and the younger Vishnu only eleven years old, that Sashi had announced his departure for Africa.
Sashi was so much taller than the eleven year-old Vishnu, and seemed like a grown man, a confident and courageous man, who was going to adventure to a new continent and make his fortune there. How the young Vishnu admired his older brother, and how he had wanted to be just like him. He wished he had been older, so that he could accompany his brother Sashi on this grand adventure, but instead, Sashi made arrangements for young Vishnu to be in the care of their aunt Saraswati, who raised young Vishnu as his own.
As a young teenager growing up in Kathiawar, Vishnu regularly corresponded with Sashi, writing him pleading aerogrammes in Gujarati, which would often take months to arrive at Sashi’s home in Mombasa. Vishnu pleaded for his brother Sashi to send for him to Africa.
Sashi said he wanted to wait until young Vishnu was at least sixteen years old, and also because Sashi wanted to set himself up in business before he could invite Vishnu to join him. When Sashi and Vinoo’s aunt Saraswati arranged for a young Kathiawari bride for Sashi, Sashi traveled back to Indian to meet his bride to be, to marry, and then to return with his new wife back to Mombasa.
At the simple village wedding ceremony, young Vishnu pleaded to Sashi and his bride to take him back with them to Mombasa. Sashi had replied to him then:
“Your time will come, Vishnu betha, and that time will be auspicious and there will be signs of auspiciousness on your journey to Africa, this I am certain of, just as today’s shadi (wedding) to my beloved bride is auspicious.”
Some years passed and Sashi was now well established with his own grocery business in Mombasa, with his wife and his young family, and the young Vishnu was now seventeen years old, and still aching to leave Kathiawar and travel to Mombasa to join his beloved brother Sashi, and work with him in the grocery business. He was thus overjoyed when he learned that his brother Sashi had made arrangements for Vishnu to come to Africa.
However, to Vishnu’s surprise, his brother was not inviting him to join his family in Mombasa. Instead, Sashi had arranged for young Vishnu to apprentice with a Gujarati friend of Sashi’s who had a flourishing lumber business in Dar es Salaam in Tanganyika.
Wrote the ever-optimistic Sashi to his beloved younger brother Vishnu:
“Vishnu my dearly beloved brother, I want you to become your own man, and find your own journey within this gift of life. You were always the clever one, the bright star, dear Vishnu, you have so much within you, and I know in my heart that you will do great things. I do not wish to clip your wings, my dearly beloved brother, by having you live in the shadow of my own very humble accomplishments here in Mombasa. I am but a simple grocer. That is all I am and all I shall ever be. You have a great destiny, beloved Vishnu. I have always known this. I wish for you to find your own wings and to soar like an eagle, and that is why I have arranged for you this apprenticeship in Dar es Salaam. This is auspicious and it is right.”
Potco’s father Sashi Patel, was a man of the rarest humility.
Sashi had always known that his younger brother Vishnu was smarter, shrewder and savvier than Sashi could ever be. Sashi was a simple man at heart, who wanted a simple life for his family. It would have been easier for Sashi to stay within the traditional comfort zone of the Indian diaspora network, of having his brother join in with him in his grocery business in Mombasa.
Nonetheless, Sashi broke from this tradition because he knew that his brother Vishnu was an exceptionally gifted boy who just needed the right opportunity to come fully into his own, and, as he had said to Vishnu in his most recent aerogramme, ‘soar like an eagle’.
Soar he did.
Vishnu had had such a deep yearning for immigrant enterprise and such a burning ambition to make his mark on the world, that as soon as he was let out of the confines of the desolate and despairing Kathiawar village, into the bustling and economically thriving Tanganyika capital of Dar es Salaam, Vishnu became unstoppable.
He worked tirelessly for his employer who was riding the wave of the construction business in Dar es Salaam, where hotels were now being built to accommodate the growing tourist industry, which brought lucrative foreign exchange into Tanganyika, from the English Pound Sterling to the US Dollar. The legendary wildlife of the Serengeti National Park and other game reserves, were becoming a wider draw for wealthy travelers from Europe and America and the construction demands were growing at a compounding rate.
Soon, Vishnu’s employer and mentor made him a young partner in the lumber business, and when his employer passed on, he left the young Vishnu with the first option to take over what had now burgeoned into the largest lumber company in all of East Africa. Vishnu, ambitious, innovative, enterprising and ethical, fair and firm, took over the helm of the company and kept expanding the business and making it more and more profitable.
News of Vishnu’s soaring success would periodically reach Sashi’s family and Sashi would glow with pride at the mounting accomplishments of his younger brother.
When Vishnu purchased a palatial home with vast flower gardens in the exclusive Oyster Bay residential area of Dar es Salaam, Sashi exclaimed admiringly to his family:
“Oyster Bay! Wawa! What a topping chapie is my brother Vishnu, isn’t it!”
It was reported back through the Indian diaspora chatter network that Vishnu’s guest list at this luxurious home in Oyster Bay, included regulars from the government ministries, including the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Industry. It was rumored that even the President of Tanganyika had once dined at Vishnu’s home.
Sashi turned to Potco and his brother Vinoo when he heard this and quipped with a cheeky grin:
“Now see boys – my brother Vishnu, he seems to be dining with people ‘above the salt’ isn’t it?”
When the day arrived that news reached Sashi’s family that Vishnu’s son Dilip was leaving for boarding school in England because he had just been accepted to Eton, Potco and his brother Vinoo were notably impressed and rushed to inform their father of the latest news.
Sashi was not as jubilant as Potco and his brother Vinoo might have expected. Instead, he was pensive and paused a long time before he answered. When he finally did answer Potco and Vinoo, he answered his boys with a question:
“Now boys – what all I said one time to you about that quote about Eton, you remember?”
“You said that ‘The British Empire was won on the playing fields of Eton’.”
“That is right,” sighed Sashi, quietly, contemplatively.
Sashi Patel paused for a long time before he spoke again. This time, he spoke with conviction and looked his boys straight in the eye:
“You see boys, great poet his name was Ibn Khaldun, what all he said? He to said that in history, those that are to conquered, they then want to have what the conqueror had, you see? We must to be careful that we do not become like our conquerors, you see? Britishers, they did conquer India on playing fields of Eton, when they had big power, but we must not become like Britishers when we get big power. Otherwise we will to forget that we are Indian and not Britishers.”
It was one of the very rare times that Potco and his brother Vinoo had seen their father, Sashi Patel, so contemplative and gloomy. His soul seemed conflicted and troubled. A dark shadow was caste on Sashi’s soul. After speaking to his sons, he slumped back into his chair and gazed out of the window with a stare that seemed miles away.
Out of respect, his sons did not leave the room, lest their father had any more words to share with them after his quiet contemplation.
Eventually, Sashi turned back to his sons and said quietly with glazed look in his eyes:
“My boys, you know in the Katha Upanishads it says ‘the path of salvation is narrow; narrow as the edge of a razor.”
As Sashi Patel’s deceased body blazed in a glorious yellow-orange fire, billowing with grey-black clouds of smoke, set against the deep blue Indian Ocean and the crimson hue of the African dusk, the white robed Brahmin priest recited Sanskrit verses from the Vedas and Upanishads.
Potco and Vinoo, their two sisters and their mother, stood next to their uncle Vishnu and two young African men who were close friends of the Patel family, Mwangi and Kamau, all of them watching the blazing fire and listening to the Brahmin’s recitations and singing:
“Atma devanum, bhuyanasya garbhah” sang the Brahmin in a somber and funereal tone (seeds of the Universe and songs of the earth).
He then sang the song of Purusha from the Vedas:
“Purusha is the whole Universe; what has been and what is going to be. One fourth of him is all beings. Three fourths of him is immortal heaven.”
Potco gazed out at the beautiful blue Indian Ocean.
His father had always wanted to be cremated at a ceremony here, on Bamburi Beach in Mombasa, where he loved to stroll in the evenings with his wife. On Sundays, when he closed the grocery store early, the entire family would walk and picnic and walk again for ours on the beach.
Potco’s mother would pack hot chai in flasks for their picnics, as well as fresh vegetable samosas and pakoras, with liquid sweet-spicy tamarind sauce in a plastic squirt bottle usually used for tomato ketchup or mustard. Sashi would gaze at the Indian Ocean and say to his children:
“Now, you see children, Indian Ocean it connects me to my home in my Kathiawar village in Gujarat. You see, where I come from there are three waters connecting. There is Gulf of Kutch, there is Gulf of Khambhat and there is Arabian Sea also, but all connect back to Indian Ocean.”
Potco’s father would pause and contemplate the ocean once more, and then his eyes would begin to sparkle as his imagination and love of history came alive and engulfed his being:
“You know children, trade, business, isn’t it? That is what we Gujarati people love and why all we love it? Look at this Indian Ocean and imagine what all happened here for hundreds of years. Can you be quiet with me just listen quietly and hear history on this ocean?”
Even the slightest chewing noise seemed to be disrespectful at this juncture in Sashi’s musings, and so the children stopped gorging on the delicious delicacies and slurping their delicious chai that their mother had prepared for the picnic and they gazed out at the ocean and tried to listen to the whispers and ghosts of history with their father.
“Listen,” said Sashi, quietly in his native Gujarati, “Listen to all the different languages, the conversations, the gossip, the tales from far off lands, of travelers and traders…
“Listen most of all to the barter and the haggling of Hindus and Muslims and Jews, of Zoroastrians, Jains, Sikhs, Arabs, Turks, Egyptians, Ethiopians… people of all faiths and languages, people sailing on dhows from the time of Ibn Khladun and Ibn Battuta, learning to understand each other, work with each other, conduct business with each other, trade and exchange with each other… all because of this Indian Ocean.”
As the funeral pyre burned through and the ashes of his father began to form and as the saffron sun began to sink into the Indian Ocean, Potco thought back to those times when his father’s eyes were so filled with wonderment and awe, as Sashi had pondered upon what a profound temple for humanity the Indian Ocean had been for so many diverse peoples of the world.
The Brahmin priest, who had now gathered Potco’s father’s ashes contained in an alabaster, handed the container filled with ashes to Potco, as the eldest son. Potco then scattered the ashes of Sashi Patel upon the Indian Ocean.
That next morning after Sashi’s funeral, as his brother Vishnu boarded the railway from Mombasa back to Nairobi and embarked upon his train journey, Vishnu performed his own quiet ritual in memory of his beloved brother. When Vishnu had been a young man traveling for the first time from India to the shores of East Africa, he had taken a train journey from his native Gujarat to the port of Bombay, from which he sailed to Dar es Salaam.
On the train, the chaiwalla served Vishnu and a fellow passenger tea in a mud cup fired in the local village kiln. Vishnu and his fellow passenger, an elderly, had several cups chai. Vishnu saved the last two empty ceramic mud cups as keepsakes, which he took with him to Africa. To this day Vishnu still had those two chaiwalla cups, which reminded him of his origins and the auspicious train ride at the start of his journey to Africa, which brought him such good fortune.
Vishnu always kept his two chaiwalla keepsake cups in his briefcase, wrapped carefully in a stretch of white Indian cheesecloth, to keep them dry and safe. As he sat in the train compartment from Mombasa to Nairobi, he requested the African server to bring him a pot of tea. Vishnu then placed the two empty chaiwalla cups on the fold up table before him in the compartment, and he filled one of them with tea and mixed in the milk and sugar just as the chaiwalla would. He left the other cup empty in honor of his brother Sashi. Vishnu then toasted his dearly departed brother before he drank the tea from his cup. He then left the two empty cups sitting in front of him on the foldout table, and gazed at them periodically, throughout his train journey back to Nairobi.
Mwangi and Kamau, the two young African men who attended Sashi’s funeral, had been in the employ of Sashi Patel ever since he had begun going into business for himself as a grocer. They had helped him in the day-to-day tasks making and receiving deliveries of fruits and vegetables and sundry items. They had been loyal to Potco’s father and he had great affection for them.
They started out helping Sashi for a few hours a week in his business when they were still in school and needed some extra money.
When Mwangi and Kamau left school, they came to work fulltime for Sashi.
One summer, when Mwangi and Kamau were still in school, Sashi could not afford to employ them, and so he asked his brother Vishnu to help him out by employing them on his palatial estate on Oyster Bay in Dar es Salaam. Vishnu was delighted. He said to Sashi that he needed extra hands for his head gardener as they were planning to cultivate a magnificent garden. Vishnu arranged for Mwangi and Kamau to live in a comfortable cottage on his estate and they both enjoyed the outdoors all summer, apprenticing under Vishnu’s gardener.
Kamau was the nature lover, and he really took to the work and loved learning about all the different plants and the varied ways in which flowers beds are cultivated and nurtured. Mwangi enjoyed the work too, but Mwangi had an inner drive and ambition in him, that Vishnu saw as somewhat resembling his own. Both Sashi and Vishnu saw the potential in these two African young men and saw them more as friends and family then as employees.
When Vishnu relocated his family and his business from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi, he told Sashi that he would like to help Mwangi and Kamau build their future. Sashi was delighted with Vishnu’s decision, because he did not possess the resources that his brother Vishnu did, to really help to build a future for Mwangi and Kamau. Sashi asked Mwangi and Kamau what they would like to do, if they had the opportunity.
Mwangi said that we would like to apply to Nairobi University and study law and perhaps one day go into politics. Kamau said his cherished dream was to be a florist and have his own flower business one day. Vishnu, diligent and dedicated as always, made sure that both Mwangi and Kamau’s dreams came to reality.
As Mwangi and Kamau watched Potco scatter his father’s ashes into the Indian Ocean, they did so as professional young men. Mwangi had now graduated from Nairobi University with a degree in law, had passed the bar exam and was now a practicing lawyer. Kamau was now a florist and had a small but thriving flower retail and delivery business in downtown Nairobi.
By the early 1970’s it was clear to Potco and his brother Vinoo, that the time had now finally arrived for them to leave Mombasa and emigrate to Britain and make their home in London.
The entire cultural landscape of the Indian diaspora in East Africa seemed to have suffered an economic and political earthquake and developed fault lines through which Indians were starting to fall through the cracks. For good reason, the Indian community leaders of business and enterprise within East Africa were now getting the jitters.
In neighboring Uganda, the government of Prime Minister Milton Obete had been over thrown in a coup de’état by the brutal military leader, General Idi Amin Dada. Soon after, Idi Amin’s military government decreed the expulsion of 60,000 Asians from Uganda. In neighboring Tanganyika, which had now been renamed ‘Tanzania’ after merging with neighboring Zanzibar, President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania had declared the Arusha Declaration which proved to be a blueprint for his socialist program known as Ujamaa.
Part of this Ujamaa policy in the early 1970’s was the nationalization of all private property in Tanzania, as well as major commercial and residential real estate. Sashi’s brother Vishnu, Potco’s uncle, who now lived in Nairobi, but had begun investing in property in Tanzania from his pioneering days as a rising businessman in Dar es Salaam, suffered a financial blow from the Ujamaa policy. Although by normal standard, Vishnu was still a wealthy man, he had invested most of his money in hotels and commercial residences in Dar es Salaam and had to hand over more than three quarters of his property investments to the new Tanzanian socialist government in compliance with the Ujamaa policy.
Things were not that good in the 1970’s for many of Potco and Vinoo’s relatives in the UK either:
A flood of Indian and Pakistanis immigration into the UK had created an acrimonious atmosphere of resentment and racism amongst English people. These were harsh times for the Indian community in areas like Southall in west London, in the London Borough of Ealing, where many of Potco’s relatives lived. Indian school children often got roughed up and beaten up by the growing contingent of skinheads. On the political front, there was the rise of the white supremacist National Front Party as well as the rising popularity of the anti-immigration campaigns of Minister of Parliament Enoch Powell, for whom anti-immigration seemed like a viable economic solution during this period of high unemployment in Britain.
Potco would often find himself on the phone with one of his relatives in Southall, who had suffered in some way due to the hatred of Indian immigrants in the UK. There had been times when their car had been scratched up or the windshield bashed in by Skinheads. There had been times when one of their children had been roughed up the Southall Skinheads or the Hanwell Bootboys.
On this particular occasion, Potco’s childhood friend from Mombasa, Mohan, who had a newsagent shop in Southall, that sold newspapers, chocolates and various sundry retail items, had had his entire pane glass shop front window shattered by unemployed skinheads violently hurling bricks at the window. Poor old Mohan was in tears on the phone to his friend Potco, and was considering shutting down his business altogether lest he suffer a worse attack from the Southall Skinheads.
Potco tried to comfort him and, ever the optimist, just like his late father Sashi, encouraged the tearful Mohan to maintain a stiff upper lip and not give in to the terrorizing skinheads:
“Now Mohan bhai, remember what Winston Churchill said isn’t it? ‘Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never – in nothing great or small, large or petty!’”
“What is our crime, Potco? What is our crime that skinheads do this to us?”
“I do not know, Mohan my friend,” ventured Potco.
“Yes, you know!” pressed Mohan, clearly upset and clearly asking a rhetorical question.
Potco allowed Mohan to vent and rant, knowing his friend needed to have a good moan and groan. Mohan proceeded to rant and feel sorry for himself:
“What was our crime in Uganda, eh? Why that President Idi Amin threw us Indians out and gave our businesses away to people who did not work for them? You answer me that, Potco? And what all that President Julius Nyerere did in Tanzania with his big socialist Ujamaa, eh? He took all the Indian properties we worked for, all the businesses we built, he nationalized them, and he gave them to people who did not work for them. So what was our crime in Tanzania then Potco? Eh? Answer me that?”
Potco knew the answer that Mohan had in mind, yet he responded by feigning ignorance, so as to let Mohan continue to blow off steam:
“Um, I don’t know, Mohan, I don’t know what our crime was. I do not think we were guilty of a crime in these situations, Mohan.”
“Yes, to these people we are guilty of a crime Potco bhai, isn’t it? And what crime did I commit here, that these skinheads who throw bricks at my shop window? Eh? What is my crime Potco? Tell me!”
“I don’t know, Mohan…”
“The crime is this, it is the same crime that we Indians committed in Uganda and in Tanzania and now here in Southall. You know what crime it is?”
Here it finally comes, thought Potco.
“Crime is two words only. Just two words, only isn’t it? Shall I tell you Potco?”
“Yes, please, tell me what the crime is, Mohan…”
“Hard Work. Two words. You see! That is our crime. Hard Work. We work hard and that is why nobody likes us. Wherever we Indians go in the world, they hate us because we work harder than them. That is why they are always trying to destroy us, isn’t it? Hard Work. That is our crime”.
Potco’s heart went out to his friend Mohan in the UK but there was a need for tough love in this friendship, for the sake of keeping up the moral of Mohan and his family.
Potco spoke in a gentle but firm voice to his dear friend:
“Now Mohan, I am glad we spoke of these things. But please calm yourself now, so that when you leave the shop floor downstairs and you go back upstairs to Nikhila and the children, you can be strong for them. You need to be strong for your family, Mohan, no matter what happens. So get a grip now Mohan, and pick yourself up and stand tall. Your family needs you to be strong.”
“You are correct, Potco. That is why I called you. You always keep calm and you are always strong. Thank you, my friend. I will go now upstairs to Nikhila and the children, and we will have tea and bhajia and I will tell them quote you said from Churchill about never give in, isn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s the spirit Mohan. Winston Churchill quote was one of my father’s favorites, you know?”
“Ahh… Our dearly departed Sashi Patel, may the Lord Krishna himself care for Sashibhai’s soul! You are to be just like your father Sashi, you know that Potco! Just like him, you are now. His spirit lives on in you, Potco!”
“That is the greatest compliment you can give me, Mohan my friend.”
There was a long pause and Potco patiently waited on the phone line as Mohan calmed himself and gathered his thoughts before hanging up the phone. Finally, Mohan spoke:
“You know, Potco…” Mohan began in a more unflustered and unexcitable tone, “If that unemployed skinhead who had thrown the brick into my shop window had instead decided to come into my shop, and talk to me, and asked me for a job, I would have given him a job. Just he had to ask me, and I would have been happy to give him work. But he did not want to work. Just he wanted to throw bricks, isn’t it?”
Potco did not reply in words, but Mohan felt his friend’s tender and silent support and understanding. Mohan cheerily broke the silence and signed off:
“Now, my dear friend Potco,” began the revitalized and restored Mohan, “It is time for me to go upstairs to Nikhila and the children, and have tea and bhajia with them, and tell them quote you said from Winston Churchill.”
Potco gazed with entrancement at the sparkling azure of the Indian Ocean from the shores of Mombasa’s Bamburi Beach, his khaki cotton trousers rolled up to his knees so that he could plant his bare feet in the wet sand and have the gentle morning waves lap up past his ankles as the sea salt scent and the balmy breeze of the ocean sprayed his imagination like a watered garden, rich and fertile with stories and insights and wisdom.
Like his beloved father Sashi, the riches that Potco considered as truly indestructible was the enduring wealth of the imagination. Of stories, such as the stories that Sashi imagined when he asked his children to ‘listen’ to the Indian Ocean:
“Listen to all the different languages, the conversations, the gossip, the tales from far off lands, of travelers and traders, of merchants and maritime men… Listen most of all to the barter and the haggling of Hindus and Muslims and Jews, of Zoroastrians, Jains, Sikhs, Arabs, Sufis, Turks, Egyptians, Ethiopians… people of all faiths and languages, people sailing on dhows from the time of Ibn Khladun and Ibn Battuta, learning to understand each other, work with each other, conduct business with each other, trade and exchange with each other… all because of this Indian Ocean.”
Potco had shared these same words with his own five children.
His eldest child, his son Dhruv referred to this story as “the very ideal of pluralism”. Potco had no idea what “pluralism” meant, but it sounded quite good coming from his son’s impeccable English boarding school accent.
This was to be Potco’s last farewell to Mombasa as an immigrant to Kenya.
He had been accepted to become a citizen of the United Kingdom and this morning, as he gazed at the Indian Ocean, Potco and his wife’s suitcases were already packed, and the driver of their car already prepared to take Potco and his wife to Mombasa Airport from which they would embark upon their flight to London Heathrow.
As he gazed dreamily at the vast Indian Ocean he reflected with a heart richly laden with gratitude at how the years had generously gifted Potco and his family.
After Potco and his brother Vinoo’s father Sashi had passed away, Sashi’s brother Vishnu had taken a keen interest in his two young nephews and been as much a mentor and father figure to them as he felt Sashi would have wanted of him. Uncle Vishnu was already a very successful businessman when Potco and Vinoo lost their father, and so he offered the young men the opportunity to back their ideas of expanding Sashi’s grocery business.
Both Potco and Vinoo wanted to create a franchise of grocery stores that would expand beyond Mombasa to other cities and towns in Kenya. Additionally, Potco’s big pitch to their Uncle Vishnu was the idea of an import-export business whereby they would integrate the supply chain of this expanding grocery business by trading in sundry goods such as tea, coffee and desiccated coconut as well as sisal and cocoa. Uncle Vishnu was impressed by the boys’ work ethic, which had been deeply instilled within them by his late brother Sashi.
However, it went much deeper than that for their Uncle Vishnu.
Vishnu knew that his own karma had been sweetened by the profound understanding of his beloved brother Sashi, who, in his own wisdom, broke from tradition by ensuring that Vishnu received a break in life by giving Vishnu a start in Dar es Salaam instead of having Vishnu join Sashi in Mombasa. Sashi had wanted for his brother Vishnu to ‘find his wings’.
Now, in this same cycle of karma, Vishnu saw an opportunity to restore the balance, by providing young Potco and Vinoo to find their wings and to ‘soar like eagles’.
Soar they did.
Having the capital investment from their Uncle Vishnu and buoyed by the good fortune of a booming economy, Potco and Vinoo expanded their franchise of grocery stores from several more in Mombasa, to many more coastal and inland groceries in Malindi, Mtwapa, Kilifi, Dololo, Mariakani, Takaungu, Kinago and Lunga-Lunga.
It was a tremendous boost for Potco and Vinoo that simultaneous with their grocery store and supply chain expansion of grocery related produce, their Uncle Vishnu was buying up hotels and high-end restaurants, which needed a steady food related supply of produce they imported into Kenya. It was a symbiotic relationship for brothers Potco and Vinoo and their uncle, one that perfectly suited Uncle Vishnu, who needed his hotels and restaurants to be supplied reliably, cost-effectively and ethically by family members such as Sashi’s two sons, whom he trusted completely.
Thus it was that through hard work, enterprise and plucky resourcefulness, Potco and Vinoo prospered over a period of over two decades and became wealthy men.
Both brothers made their most important and cherished investments in their children’s education. They had always recalled how their ever cheerful father Sashi, carried a slight shadow of sadness since he had to yank both of his sons out of school at the age of fourteen because he needed more hands on deck at the grocery store.
The fact that the father of Potco and Vinoo needed the extra manpower to run his business was not unusual in the Indian community that the boys grew up in. However, what was unusual is that their father Sashi was never really comfortable with this Indian tradition of entitled manpower of sons in service to their father’s business. Or, indeed, an elder brother’s entitled expectation of manpower from his younger brother. Instead, he had wanted his sons to have wider opportunities than to be confined to Sashi’s sense of his own modest and understated accomplishments.
Most of all Sashi had desired that his own sons not pull their own children out of school to help in the grocery store when his sons became parents. Potco and Vinoo had grown up with a sense of this misgiving of their father’s and countered that karma with an abundant investment in their own children’s education.
All three of Vinoo’s children and all five of Potco’s children had been sent to boarding school in England. Potco’s eldest son Dhruv, had attended boarding school at Winchester after which he had read History at Christ Church College at Oxford University. Dhruv now worked in the City of London as a commodities trader and was earning a six-figure salary.
His eldest daughter Chandra, had attended Cheltenham Ladies College and was now at the Courtald Institute of Art where she was studying the History of Indian Art and Architecture. His other son Ashvin was at the Rugby School, his daughter Ishvani at Badminton School and his youngest daughter Upasana was at Marlborough.
The soaring reputation of the Patel family’s climb to the very top echelons of the Indian immigrant food chain was primarily prompted by Potco’s more flamboyant and spendthrift younger brother, Vinoo. When Vinoo’s eldest daughter Sukanya graduated from Sherborne School in Dorset, England, Vinoo held a tea party for her at the Claridge’s Hotel in London.
Only two years later, when Sukanya got engaged to a wealthy Indian financier, Vinoo threw a lavish wedding for his daughter and her future husband as well as over 400 wedding guests at The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Bombay.
Vinoo had already migrated with his family to England, and Potco and his wife now remained the final stronghold of the family still remaining in Mombasa. Potco’s children would come to Mombasa to visit during their summer – and sometimes winter – holidays, as would Vinoo’s children when they were at school in England. Potco’s children also visited with Vinoo and his wife at their spacious home in Knightsbridge when they were in London.
Ever since they had moved to Knightsbridge, Vinoo and his wife had beckoned Potco and his wife to purchase a home there. Vinoo would telephone Potco in Mombasa and try to persuade him:
“Potco my brother, you must to buy a house here in Knightsbridge when you and Lakhshmi move here. It is too good, I tell you. We are just two minutes from Harrods isn’t it? There are some houses for sale just near us. I will talk to the estate agents and we will find you a house here.”
Potco was skeptical.
“Vinoo, what Lakhshmi and me will do in Knightsbridge-Bitesbridge fancy-bancy place? You know me brother – I am a simple man. I don’t want to move to high-class place. Just I want to be with common people. Maybe East End of London, I think so… What you think?”
“East End!” exclaimed Vinoo, “Are you gone mad brother? You know how much discrimination there is against Indians in East End? They will to break your windows like your friend Mohan in Southall, remember him?”
“Yes, yes,” acknowledged Potco, “I remember what happened to Mohan because of those Southall Skinheads. But listen bhai, listen… you remember when our father Sashi used to tell us about Kingsley Hall in East End? Kingsley Hall is where Mahatma Gandhi stayed when he visited London. Why? Because just he wanted to be with the simple folks of East End, the salt of the earth, not Knightsbridge-Bitesbridge fancy-bancy place, isn’t it? We must learn from these people like Gandhi and Churchill isn’t it?”
“Potco, how you can put Gandhi and Churchill in same sentence?”
“Because, my brother, we need to learn from whomever has good lessons to teach us, no matter what his color or his religion or his bank account. Just like the trading on the Indian Ocean that our father used to talk about and imagine about.”
“Our father was a big dreamer Potco, he was too much into his big imagination, isn’t it?”
“Yes, yes he was Vinoo, and that is why he dreamt of coming all on his own from Kathiawar to Mombasa. Because he had imagination and he could dream dreams. That is why we are where we are today. Because our father was a big dreamer.”
It seemed that Potco and Vinoo had less and less in common with each other as time went by. Potco did not fully embrace this rollercoaster ride of Indian immigrant financial success that was coddled with luxurious trappings. He especially did not like the idea that this so-called success seemed to retrograde the Indian businessman’s karma into a guise that eerily resembled the colonialism of The British Raj in India.
Whenever he visited London, it pained Potco to see his brother Vinoo fall all over himself, pandering and catering to his English guests at his house in Knightsbridge.
Vinoo’s bookshelves were lined with classic works, which he had never read. Everything was a big performance, a feigning and a faking. This was not a real life, not an authentic nor an honorable life, thought Potco quietly to himself. His brother Vinoo was trying to become an English gentlemen instead of being proud of who he really was: the son of a humble Gujarati grocer whose own father had to work in the salt mines in Kathiawar before igniting the daring dreams and consummate courage to emigrate to Mombasa. Why was Vinoo not proud of his Village India heritage? Why was he trying so hard amongst his London Knightsbridge set, to conceal his humble heritage and to whitewash and downplay the glory of his rich and profound Indian culture?
Potco was baffled by it all, as he gazed for one last time at the serene and authentic Indian Ocean half expecting to have the ocean provide Potco with answers for these deep and troubling questions. The storm and stirring was not in the deep and tranquil ocean but within Potco’s very own soul. He looked to the ocean to calm his soul and to quiet this inner storm within him.
Lakhshmi was his strength and his stay, just as the Indian Ocean was.
Potco had confided in Lakhshmi that he was not comfortable making the arriviste statement to the international Indian community that ‘Potco had arrived, because he and Lakhshmi had just moved from Mombasa to London and purchased a house in Knightsbridge’.
That did not sound right or true or real to either Lakhshmi or Potco.
His deeply proud Indian soul saw the journey of life as in the poems and verses of ancient Upanishads, where the journey of life was nonlinear, and was about learning lessons and becoming richer in understanding.
Potco was a discerning businessman, and the one commodity that could never be sold to him was the Western notion of life’s linearity, whereby one started at one point and then ‘arrived’ at another. In the realm of the Universe in all Her glory, this Western celebration of life, which seemed all about ‘arriving’ at a bloated material ‘success’ seemed trivial and trite.
Potco framed the situation this to his wife Lakhshmi:
“You see Lakhshmi, difference between my brother Vinoo and me is this one – Vinoo, he wants to be ‘above the salt’ and me, I want to be with people like humble Cockneys in East End of London, working people, who are ‘salt of the earth’, isn’t it?”
They had discussed this notion at length and come to a conclusion that they both were now comfortable with.
They would live out the rest of their days in the East End of London, where Potco had just purchased a newsagent shop, thanks to his friend Mohan in Southall. He had asked Mohan to find him a good little newsagent shop that Potco could run with the minimum of staff assistance. Perhaps one fulltime staff person and a part time person at most.
Mohan had been scouting the East End for the right business for Potco, one that preferably had living quarters upstairs, so that Potco and Lakhshmi could live above the shop, just as Mohan and Nikhila lived above their own newsagent shop in Southall. After a diligent search through East End towns such as Hackney, Stepney and Bethnal Green, Mohan found Potco a newsagent shop in the town of Blackwall. Potco and his wife Lahkshmi approved Mohan’s choice of both business and residence and the deal was secured and signed and sealed.
Potco and Lahkshmi were now moving permanently from Mombasa to Blackwall in London. A new journey and a new life; a new country and new beginnings.
The night before Potco and Lahkshmi were to leave for London, they had dinner in their Mombasa home with Potco’s Uncle Vishnu. Vishnu had taken the train from Nairobi that same morning, to spend the evening with Potco and Lahkshmi before they emigrated to Britain.
Lahkshmi had cooked a sumptuous feast of Gujarati delicacies for the farewell dinner, and the three of them, Potco, Lahkshmi and Vishnu, bantered and laughed, told nostalgic stories of their early days as newly arrived immigrants in East Africa, and caught up on news of far and distant family members and friends.
Vishnu brought updated news of the two young African men, Mwangi and Kamau, which Potco and Lahkshmi listened to with great interest.
Vishnu was becoming a powerful man in Nairobi, both economically and politically.
He had befriended an Englishman, Sir Derek Erskine, who was now Chief Whip and a Member of Parliament of KANU, the Kenya African National Union political party. It was hard to find an honest man in politics, Vishnu lamented, and Sir Derek, who had been a longtime friend and business partner of Vishnu, was that rare breed of an honest and ethical politician.
Sir Derek had also taken a keen interest in young Mwangi, whose university education Vishnu had sponsored. Mwangi was a rising star as a young Nairobi lawyer, and he also harbored political ambitions. At the encouragement of Vishnu, Sir Derek made the necessary parliamentary connections for Mwangi, so that he might begin to build a campaign to run as a fellow MP for the KANU political party.
The talk of politics and business between Vishnu and Potco was a touch dry for Lahkshmi, whose mind was on the last minute packing she still wanted to attend to. She politely excused herself from the table and said she would make some chai for Vishnu and Potco, after which she would tend to her suitcase packing.
“Oh, don’t leave yet Lahkshmi,” beckoned Vishnu with a smile, “I have been saving the good news for last. Young Kamau and young Wanjiro have fallen in love and are soon to be married!”
This was good news indeed, agreed Potco and Lahkshmi.
Vishnu had set up young Kamau in business as a small business owner, a florist, in downtown Nairobi, ever since Kamau’s interest in flowers had blossomed from the time he had apprenticed under Vishnu’s head gardener on Vishnu’s sprawling and luxurious estate in the exclusive Nairobi suburb of Muthaiga. During this apprenticeship, Kamau had gotten to know Wanjiro, a maid who worked in Vishnu’s household.
Kamau and Wanjiro had been courting for several years and were now engaged to marry, and Potco and Lahkshmi glowed with happiness upon hearing this auspicious news.
Lahkshmi made a large teapot of hot chai for Potco and Vishnu and then left to attend to the rest of her packing and organizing for her upcoming journey.
She deliberately did not provide teacups with the teapot full of hot chai.
Vishnu had requested Lahkshmi to not provide teacups because he had brought along his own cups. The same two ceramic mud cups that Vishnu brought with him from the Indian railway chaiwalla, before he first set foot in East Africa as a very young man. Vishnu now removed these two mud cups from his briefcase and placed them on the table. Potco then poured the chai in the two mud teacups and they both sipped their tea thoughtfully.
“You know, Vimal,” said Vishnu quietly to Potco, “These two mud teacups always remind me where your father Sashi and I come from. It is important to remember where you come from Vimal.”
Nobody, not even his wife Lahkshmi, addressed Potco by his given name of Vimal. Everyone addressed him as Potco.
Potco’s father Sashi so admired his younger brother Vishnu that he wanted to commemorate him by naming his boys with a name that began with the same letter. Hence, he called his older son Vimal and his younger son Vinoo. After Sashi passed on, and young Vimal and Vinoo grew to be young grocers, and their Uncle Vishnu sponsored them to build a chain of successful grocery stores, young Vimal came up with the idea of an import-export business, trading primarily in food items, for which his Uncle Vishnu also provided considerable capital investment.
The successful import export-business that was young Vimal’s brainchild, Vimal decided to call the Provincial Overseas Trading Company, Ltd., or POTCO.
As is so common amongst Indian businessmen of his generation, the name of the business often merges with, or replaces the man’s original name. The name Potco caught on rapidly and in a short amount of time most people had forgotten or never even learned that Potco’s real name was Vimal. Of course Vishnu had known Potco from when he was a young child, and so it was more habitual for Vishnu to call Potco by his original name of Vimal. Potco asked Vishnu how his brother Vinoo was, since Vishnu had recently returned to Kenya from a business trip in London and had dined with Vinoo and his family at their very posh home in Knightsbridge.
“Vimal, what I remember most about having dinner with your brother Vinoo in London,” began Vishnu delicately, “Is that his wife served us tea afterwards in Royal Doulton tea cups with a royal crest and coat of arms.”
“Vinoo insisted me you know, he wanted Lahkshmi and me to move near his home in Knightsbridge, Vishnu Uncle,” explained Potco, “But it was not in my heart. I think Blackwall in East End of London is a better choice, you think so also?”
“Yes,” smiled Uncle Vishnu approvingly to Potco, “Blackwall is the correct choice for Lahkshmi and you. It is auspicious and it is respectful toward the good fortune that you have been blessed with in this lifetime. You know Vimal, the Universe is indeed mysterious in Her orchestrations of precision and harmony of interwoven events. Consider for instance, how you had requested your friend Mohan to locate you a shop and a residence in the East End of London. And Mohan, who is so diligent, searched far and wide until he found you and Lahkshmi the perfect opportunity in Blackwall, of all places. Let me tell you a little about the history of Blackwall, Vimal.”
Vishnu, who had a vast curiosity and knowledge of many things, some magnificent and some mundane, some topical and some trivial, proceeded to explain to Potco the position of Blackwall within the framework of The British Raj in India.
It was the mighty naval power of the British that empowered them to conquer the high seas and far off lands such as India, in order to build the vastness of the global Empire upon which ‘the sun never sets’. That naval power, combined with the shrewd and opportunistic eye for profits in trade and industry of the British East India Company, secured a force the world could not reckon with.
While the reputation of The British Empire was glamorized with countless news stories and legendary tales and oil paintings of distinguished admirals commanding the high seas, and dashing young naval officers seeking their fortune in far off lands; while the Knightsbridge and Belgravia high society set and the merchant bankers and power brokers in the City of London profited handsomely from trade and finance with India, the West Indies and East Africa; the more mundane grind of Empire building, where the grunt work took place, where the regular hard working Englishmen did back breaking labor and toiled thanklessly for generation upon generation, could be found in the bleak and dark corners of the Empire’s mechanism, in places such as Blackwall, which was the location of the East India Dock Company.
In 1600, Queen Elizabeth The First, granted a license to the ‘Governor and Merchants Trading into the East Indies’, which saw inception of the East India Company. By 1803, the British government decreed an Act of Parliament to create the East India Dock Company, to trade primarily in the profitable tea business, but also in spices, indigo, silk and other value commodities. Master shipwrights also oversaw the shipbuilding and restoration work at Blackwall.
The dockworker men of Blackwall, were the backbone of the East India Dock Company, loading the cargo and repairing the ships that were destined to trade goods in far off lands. On his recent business trip to London, Uncle Vishnu had visited Blackwall, and described to Potco the sense he had of the ghosts and whispers of history, of ambitious Empire builders and hard laboring dockworkers driven by giant profits and subjected by meager wages to play their respective roles.
Harbors and names of streets carried the legacy of trade and industry from days of Empire.
Like an excitable schoolboy, Vishnu had written down the Blackwall street names that intrigued most him because they suggested the trading of spices with India during the British Raj. He read them out to Potco, who smiled at the wonder and auspiciousness of it all:
“Saffron Street, Clove Street, Nutmeg Street, Coriander Avenue…”.
Potco and Lahkshmi were now well settled in to life in London’s Blackwall, their newsagent shop downstairs and their modest and unostentatious living quarters upstairs, which included only one spare bedroom. The shop was open seven days a week, and Potco always went downstairs to work in the shop at 5 am, whereby he met with his group of young paperboys, and sorted through the daily newspapers. At 7 am sharp, Potco opened the doors of the shop for business and worked until lunchtime, whereby a staff member took over for the afternoon shift.
Potco was proud of the fact that he ran a tight and efficient crew of paperboys, whose deliveries were always on time. This created much goodwill amongst his customer base and his reputation as a reliable shopkeeper. Throughout his business career, and even before that, from the very early days when he and his brother Vinoo helped their father Sashi in their family grocery store in Mombasa, Potco valued efficiency and order and punctuality.
It was the hallmark of his success as a businessman.
When Potco started the Provincial Overseas Trading Company, Ltd., and began dealing with shipments and letters of credit for the import and export of food commodities and spices, he built a reputation for a meticulous attention to detail and a painstaking punctiliousness.
Every item order, every delivery item, every detail of operation of the Provincial Overseas Trading Company, Ltd., was dependable and reliable.
Potco used to exclaim proudly to Lahkshmi in their days back in Mombasa, regarding his love of punctuality, paraphrasing Winston Churchill:
“Never in the history of The British Empire has a delivery been late in Potco’s business!”
Every morning, Potco and Lahkshmi arose at 4:30 am, and while Lahkshmi made the morning chai and paratha breakfast, Potco sat quietly in lotus position and recited the verse from the Isa Upanishads that was on the lips of countless millions of Hindu Indians laboring in the fields, or on construction sites, or in the carpet factories and salt mines, throughout Mother India:
“Behold the Universe in all of her 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. Thus have we learned from the ancient sages who explained this Truth to us.”
Potco silently sent his affections to his beloved Mother India, to the communities and friends he and Lahkshmi had left behind in Mombasa, to his beloved Uncle Vishnu, who had vowed never to leave Kenya, and to live in Nairobi until he took his final breath, to his brother Vinoo and his family, and, finally, Potco sent his affections to this new community that he and Lahkshmi had become part of, and had been warmly embraced by, here in the East End town of Blackwall.
Other than his routine work in the newsagent shop, Potco, like his wife Lahkshmi, devoted himself to many hours of volunteerism in the local Blackwell community.
Lahkshmi was now almost a full time volunteer at a local hospice in Blackwell, where she found deep meaning and purpose for her own life, and devoted many long and unselfish hours tending to those in fragile health who just needed someone to talk to. She enjoyed the strong and resilient spirit of the elderly that she helped care for in Blackwall, many of whom had endured the war years in their youth, the women often serving in munitions factories or in the Ambulance Corps, while the men served the war as infantrymen in the army or shipmates and marines in the navy.
It dawned upon Lahkshmi how different this elder generation was, from the generation of English people who came into Potco’s shop in Blackwall.
The elder generation had that certain resilience in them, and a dignified reserve and reticence toward any form of complaint. They were tough. They had that Churchillian ‘Blitz Spirit’. They had seen the hardest of times, perhaps lost sons in the war, or lost brothers, perhaps had their streets bombed by the Luftwaffe and had to hide in underground chambers for hours and sometimes for days. They had known what it was like to live on meager rations, and be denied even very basic nutriments such as bread, butter and salt. They never wanted Lahkshmi to fuss over them; they were hardy and uncomplaining. Most of all, they were full of gratitude for Lahkshmi and the other volunteers who served in the hospice. They knew, better than anyone, what service and sacrifice meant, and in their quiet and unassuming way, they made Lahkshmi feel warmly welcome into the Blackwall community and into their own hearts.
They were the salt of the earth.
Potco’s own favorite volunteer activity included helping out with menial tasks such as cleaning and preparing tables for meals; as well as some informal youth mentoring at a local juvenile detention center where young men had committed minor criminal offences. Ever the optimist, Potco’s cheery disposition managed to win over the young East Enders despite the borstal superintendent’s initial concern that Potco, as an Indian in the currently combustive climate of racially charged London, might become a target for some of these distraught young English ruffians.
The superintendent, a Mr. Pinkerton, would often provide a friendly reminder to Potco about the atmosphere the Indian gentleman was setting foot in:
“Now you be careful and watch ye’self, Mr. Patel. There are quite a few yobbos here who aren’t half friendly to peoples of yer, ethnic eh, you know…?”
“What means ‘yobbo’ Mr. Pinkerton?”
“Oh yobbo – yeah, well it’s short for ‘yob’ really. A yob is – well, you know – football hooligan type… likes pickin’ fights at the pub and showing up to work with a ‘angover… If they show up to work at all, that is.”
“They need to learn work ethic, these er, ‘yobbos’, isn’t it Mr. Pinkerton? Hard work, you see. Hard work is solution to everything. We can to change their character with hard work ethic, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, well I wouldn’t get yer hopes up too high on that front Mr. Patel – some of these yobs wouldn’t know an honest day’s work if it bit them in the backside.”
Mr. Pinkerton was understandably skeptical about Potco’s optimistic view that a hardened ‘yob’, as Pinkerton referred to them, could have his character transformed through the epiphany of a dedicated work ethic. Moreover, Pinkerton was not the only person who found Potco’s theory a touch naïve when it came to East End yobs.
Potco’s own brother Vinoo, sided strongly with Mr. Pinkerton on the notion that his brother Potco was naïve and saw the character potential of the yob through rose tinted glasses. Vinoo and Potco would often get into increasingly heated discussions on the topic of the yob. Vinoo became particularly incensed when Potco would suggest that it was possible to reform and rehabilitate a yob, and turn him into a hardworking, ethical and enterprising young man, just as Potco and Vinoo had been, as young men in Mombasa, building up their grocery business with the blessing and the financial capital investment of their Uncle Vishnu.
Vinoo saw himself as a realist. His brother Potco was an idealist.
That is the essential framework within which Vinoo saw the difference between him and his brother. It explained everything. It explained why Vinoo chose to live in fashionable Knightsbridge while Potco chose to live in dull and dreary Blackwall. Why Vinoo had two cars for himself, depending on what mood he was to drive which car – a Mercedes or a Jaguar – while dear old Potco did not even possess a car and preferred to take public transport instead. Why Vinoo wore very swish designer clothes which he bought at the swank shops in Knightsbridge, while dear old Potco always wore shirts that were worn with frayed collars, and dear old Lahkshmi said she was constantly darning and re-darning Potco’s socks because he was too frugal to buy a new pair.
It explained why Vinoo saw hard work as a reward to live a pleasant and comfortable life, while his brother Potco saw hard work as a duty and a cause, that needed to be passed on and even proselytized to those who had not yet experienced the joys of hard work. Those like the yob.
The quality that Potco liked least about his brother Vinoo, was Vinoo’s blatant boasts and frivolous flaunting of his financial wealth, his sense that he deserved to live the good life, after years of hard work and toil, building up a successful business.
The quality that Vinoo least liked about his brother Potco, was Potco’s self-righteous conviction that hard work was like a great religion which needed to be communicated and shared with all of mankind. Vinoo found it both offensive and naïve when Potco became almost evangelical in his zeal to proselytize the virtues of hard work to those, like the yobs, who had not yet experienced the salvation and the freedom that hard work would bring them.
It was offensive because of Potco’s pious and self-righteous assumption that all men, deep within them, possessed the ambition to be enterprising and hard working. In Vinoo’s experience, this was simply not true.
Some men don’t want to achieve great things; some men are not ambitious, some men just want to exist on the fringes of great accomplishment.
Some men just want a simple and contented life.
Like their beloved father Sashi.
Vinoo thought it was naïve and foolish of Potco to view young yobs like the juvenile offenders in the borstal, as better than they viewed themselves. Potco was setting himself up for disappointment if he felt he could somehow miraculously transform the character of the lazy and apathetic English yob into the model global citizen of the hardworking and industrious Indian.
Every Christmas Eve, Vinoo would drive down from Knightsbridge to Blackwall, in either his dark blue Mercedes Benz or his racing green Jaguar, to spend the day with his brother Potco, and help out in the newsagent shop. This annual tradition was now the one single remaining thread between the two brothers, of an increasingly threadbare brotherhood between them.
Christmas Eve was the busiest day in Potco’s newsagent shop and required all hands on deck. It was one of the rare places that the primarily English customers of Potco’s shop in Blackwall, could still rush over to, when most other shops were now closed for business, and find a last minute Christmas present, like a box of Black Magic chocolates.
Potco sold more boxes of chocolates on Christmas Eve than he did throughout the rest of the year, and he special ordered a large supply for December 24, in order to meet this excess demand for boxes of chocolate as presents on December 25.
On the previous Christmas Eve, when Vinoo had come to help Potco in the newsagent shop, Potco had recruited a young fellow by the name of Mitch for a few days before Christmas, to help out rearranging the stockroom and stocking the shelves in the shop with chocolates and other items for sale. Both Potco’s wife Lahkshmi and his brother Vinoo had been skeptical about Potco’s latest evangelical project, which was to usher young Mitch into the virtues of hard work. Potco had managed to persuade Pinkerton to release Mitch from juvenile hall for a few hours a day, to help Potco in his shop during the busy holiday season.
As was usual, Pinkerton was skeptical about the prospect:
“If you want my advice Mr. Patel, I would not recommend having yer work with one of these yobs – they can be a right nuisance, let me tell yer…”
“Look Mr. Pinkerton, I to appreciate your concern, but it is holiday season isn’t it? So how about holiday spirit from you, you see? Now this young Mitch fellow, he has visited me and my good wife Lahkshmi for teatime at our home on his Sunday afternoon off, you see? And he is very good chapie let me tell you.”
“I understand Mr. Patel, but there’s a difference between Mitch comin’ fer tea an’ him workin’ in your establishment. I don’t want yer to be disappointed with him Mr. Patel, and I don’t think this can end well, if yer want my advice. Doesn’t feel right to me.”
“I am thankful for your advice, but please – let me take risk, no? I think it will be good for the young man to learn to work hard and also, you see, this way he can have extra pocket money to buy presents for his family for the Christmas morning presents isn’t it?”
“You drive a hard bargain Mr. Patel, I will say that for yer… alright then, I will tend to all the necessary paperwork an’ you can take the yob out of here to help yer in your shop. But if it doesn’t work out mind, don’t be comin’ back and complain’ to me. I will only say ‘I told you so’…”
“Understood, Mr. Pinkerton.”
That was last Christmas Eve.
Mr. Pinkerton, Potco’s wife Lahkshmi and his brother Vinoo, had all remained doubtful about employing young Mitch in Potco’s shop and they had all been proved wrong.
Mitch turned out to be a hard worker, although it was fair to say that this was largely due to the ever persuasive and motivated Potco, whose enthusiasm for attention to detail in stocking the shelves and keeping the displays neat and tidy, of always greeting the customers with a smile and with good cheer, was compellingly infectious for young Mitch.
After closing the shop on Christmas Eve, and when young Mitch had left to go back to juvenile hall, Vinoo went around the corner to the local chip shop in Blackwall, the only one open on Christmas Eve, and brought back some piping hot fish and chips for Lahkshmi, Potco and himself.
This was also part of the tradition on Christmas Eve. It was the only day that Lahkshmi did not prepare a home cooked meal for Potco, because she had to work tirelessly with Potco and Vinoo in the shop all day with the frenzied business that never seemed to stop until they finally closed the shop at 9 pm. Lahkshmi had fetched a salt and pepper shaker from the kitchen upstairs, as well as a plastic squirt bottle normally used for tomato ketchup, which she had now filled with fresh amblee (tamarind sauce). The peppershaker had been refilled with Bombay chili powder. The saltshaker was the only container that still held its intended contents.
The three of them were famished and dug into their fish and chips.
“Mombasa fish is the best fish in the world,” commented Potco as he munched on deep fried cod, “but this Blackwell fish and chips is not bad, isn’t it?”
There was a mild air of the triumphant in Potco’s tone, which both Lahkshmi and Vinoo could sense clearly. Lahkshmi discreetly glanced over at Vinoo, as if prompting her brother-in-law to acknowledge Potco.
“You know, Potco,” ventured Vinoo, accepting the hidden cue Lahkshmi had given him, “I have to hand it you, brother – you were right and I was wrong. You saw a potential in that English yobbo and I doubted you. That yob proved to be a hard worker and I should not have judged him like that before seeing his potential. In these matters my brother, you have always been a better man than me. I am too quick to judge people.”
“See Vinoo,” began the enthusiastic Potco, savoring his triumph, “This judging that you are referring to, that is whole problem, isn’t it? You judge this young fellow, Mitch. Even you judge young English fellows like him by calling them Yob. Why call him Yob? You like it when English people call you and your family Paki? You like that? No, you don’t like so then why you call them Yob, isn’t it? Your name is not Paki it is Vinoo. His name is not Yob it is Mitch. See? They call you Paki so you call them Yob. We need to break this karma, brother. What Mahatma Gandhi taught to us, isn’t it? Gandhi he said ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’.”
Although Potco was not a formally educated man, his insights resonated with mounds of academic research on the idea that the use of a derogatory name, such as ‘Paki’ or ‘Yob’, was often the thin end of the wedge, whereby a lack of respect for a fellow being sometimes disintegrated into actions worse than mere name calling. For the Southall Skinhead who had sabotaged Mohan’s shop in Southall, or for the white supremacists in the National Front political party, calling Indians ‘Paki’ was the first step toward a lack of respect for Indian immigrants, which then escalated into worse forms of disrespect, if not outright violence.
“It was shameful of me to refer to him as a Yob,” acknowledged Vinoo meekly, “I sincerely apologize, Potco. From now on I will refer to him by his good name – Mitch.”
“And just remember, these people can be taught how to work,” added Potco with a cheeky grin ”Why? Because ‘yob’ rhymes with ‘job’, isn’t it?”
That was last Christmas Eve.
This Christmas Eve, Potco had been grooming young Mitch to take on more responsibility during the busy holiday season. In addition to stocking and cleaning the shelves in Potco’s shop, as he had done last Christmas Eve, this Christmas Eve young Mitch had been given the added duty of making the Black Magic chocolate box delivery to the shop on Christmas Eve morning.
Potco had introduced Mitch to the local warehouse where the Black Magic chocolate box supply order was to be shipped the day before. Then, on the early morning of Christmas Eve, when Potco and Lahkshmi opened the shop at 7am, Mitch would arrive with the crate loads of Black Magic in a delivery van that Potco had specially rented so that Mitch could make the delivery.
During the past year, Potco and Lahkshmi had provided young Mitch with an occasional home away from the juvenile hall, and home cooked meals as a delicious alternative to the dreadful canteen food in the borstal. The ever-persuasive Potco managed to secure two or three-hour permission slips from Pinkerton, in order that Mitch could spend time in a more home environment with Potco and his wife. Potco would fetch Mitch at the borstal and then they would walk by the docks toward to Potco’s shop and home.
Occasionally, Potco and Mitch would stop and linger at the docks and Potco would tell Mitch stories about Mombasa.
He also told Mitch about the history of Blackwall, as Potco had learned it from his Uncle Vishnu:
How the East India Dock Company was created by East India Trading Company, how dockworkers had served to load cargo and repair ships for far off lands such as India, trading in spices.
Mitch found this interesting because his family had lived in Blackwall for generations and some of his great uncles had been Blackwall dockworkers.
Potco and Mitch also strolled through the streets that commemorated this history of trade and commerce in The British Empire such as Saffron Street, Clove Street, Nutmeg Street and Coriander Avenue.
Potco would joke:
“But they don’t to have a Tamarind Street, isn’t it? Never mind, let’s now go to home Mitch, because Lahkshmi is preparing delicious chai and samosa for us, and we can to use the tamarind sauce for the samosa, you see Mitch?”
Young Mitch was developing a taste for Lahkshmi’s delicious home cooked samosas and he doused his plate of samosas with tamarind sauce.
Potco had place an LP record on the record player, of one of his and Lahkshmi’s favorite Indian singers, Mukesh, entitled Kabhi Kabhie Mere Dil Mein (Sometimes, In My Heart), and the sunny Potco began to sing along as he and Lahkshmi and Mitch had sat at the table laden with fresh samosas and hot cups of Indian chai.
“Kabhi Kabhie mere dil mein, khayaal aataa hai Ki zindagi…”
Mitch seemed unperturbed and went on eating his samosas. Lahkshmi sipped her tea and somewhat cringed at the sound of her husband’s terrible singing voice. Then she laughed when he kept singing, and asked him politely to stop.
“Please stop, Potco! Enough now – if you keep singing like this then Mitch will never to visit us again, isn’t it?”
Potco turned to Mitch and asked:
“You to like music singing, Mitch. You see, I love music singing even though myself I do not know how to sing. But I like good songs. Kabhi Kabhie is beautiful song, isn’t it? Beautiful! What songs you like, Mitch?”
“Well, I don’t know a lot of songs, mate – I like listenin’ to music though.”
“What music songs you listen Mitch?”
“Well, I like The Ramones, mostly… and The Clash.”
“Then to sing something from The Ramones, Mitch, so I can know your music songs you like…”
“Oh, alright Mr. P, well there’s one called Sheena is a Punk Rocker.”
Lahkshmi squeakily switched off the record player so they could have some silence, in order to encourage Mitch to sing one his favorite songs.
“Now you can sing Mitch,” encouraged Lahkshmi.
“Oh, alright well… ‘ere goes then,” ventured Mitch, “’Sheena is a punk rocker, Sheena is a punk rocker, Sheena is a punk rocker now…Sheena is a punk rocker, Sheena is a punk rocker, Sheena is a punk rocker. Now!’”
Mitch stopped singing. He had finished. Potco asked, surprised:
“Yeah, well that’s all the words that I know, mate. Oh – ‘ang about! I knows ‘nother Ramones song, comes to think of it… Yeah, this one’s called ‘Susie is a Headbanger’,” remembered Mitch with a mild enthusiasm, “Yeah, it’s quite good really, it goes, um, yeah… ‘Can’t stop, stop that girl, there she goes again… Headbangin’, Headbangin’, Headbangin’, Headbangin’! Ooo-Whee… Headbangin’, Headbangin’, Headbangin’! Oh Yeah!’”
While at the wheel of his brand new racing green Jaguar, Vinoo thought long and hard about his brother Potco. Vinoo had plenty of time to think as he was driving from his home in Knightsbridge in West London, all the way to the East End, to Potco’s shop and residence in Blackwall.
It was Christmas Eve again, and this was the one time in the year that Potco and Vinoo would work a day together in Potco’s shop, and bond as brothers in a way that nostalgically took them back to their decades of building a successful business together in Mombasa.
It was a dark and dreary London morning, and there was a steady splatter of sticky rain on the windshield of Vinoo’s Jaguar. Peering through the misty rain and fog, to the monotonous sound of the wipers on the windshield, Vinoo found himself feeling conflicted in trying to reconcile the values of his brother Potco with his own. There was so much that Vinoo and Potco had in common, which is why they had both managed to be such excellent and symbiotic business partners in building a hugely profitable business.
Both brothers believed absolutely in the value of ethical free market capitalism and the possibility and potential that anyone, anywhere, no matter what their lot, regardless of circumstance or color or creed, could pick themselves up by their bootstraps and make something of themselves through the virtues of hard work and enterprise.
Although both brothers were firmly united in their values of capitalism and entrepreneurship, the point of division and departure for them seemed to appear in the question of how to reap the rewards of their labors. Vinoo felt it was right to enjoy these rewards, whereas Potco seemed to think that there was virtuous duty that came part and parcel with the rewards of success.
Vinoo knew precisely what his brother Potco and his Uncle Vishnu thought of him, even though they never explicitly said so to Vinoo’s face; they thought he was fanciful and frivolous.
Vinoo did not see himself in this way. It was not as if Vinoo had been the lazy or the idiot brother who was living off the labors of his brother Potco. Vinoo had been supremely hard working and enterprising and was, in all respects, an equal partner in the business that Potco and he built in Mombasa over many years. Those were years of great sacrifice, whereby Vinoo and Potco both worked seven days a week and rarely got to spend time with their children.
The way that Vinoo endured those hard years of sacrifice was the way a man confined to a prison cell might get through his prison sentence. Each day, the man thinks of the day when he will have the freedom to walk in the fresh air and the sunshine, perhaps stroll in a park by the lake and watch the ducks and the swans and enjoy an ice cream cone under sparkling blue skies.
Vinoo got through those years by promising himself that one day, when all this tireless toil was over, he would reward himself by buying himself that dream Jaguar or that dream Mercedes that he was always dreaming about. That we would live in a posh residence in London and send his children to the very best schools, and spoil his wife, who had stood by him through all those hard working years of building a business in Mombasa, with jewels from the best jewelers in London.
That he would enjoy his twilight years in style as a reward for all his hard working years.
What was wrong with that?
It occurred to Vinoo, as he drove through the rainy London weather toward Blackwall, that what seemed wrong with his values, at least to Uncle Vishnu and to Potco, was nothing to do with the value of capitalism but in the differing cultural trajectory of successful businessmen in the British culture as opposed to the Indian culture. Uncle Vishnu, when he recently dined at Vinoo’s home in Knightsbridge, framed it in this way:
“We Hindus,” explained Uncle Vishnu in their native Gujarati language, “We know that we are coming back to this world. So we had better leave this place better than we find it, and we had better make our peace with those that used to be our enemies, like the British, you see Vinoo? Now the British, they don’t think that way. As soon as they become successful in business, most of them spend their later years having one long party because they feel that when they die, it will be the end of them, so why not have a jolly good time on their way out? That is how the Britishers think. We Indians need to be careful we do not start thinking like the Britishers because if we do, then we will never free ourselves from the bondage of those 300 years that they spent ruling us in the British Raj. If we become like the Britishers, than we are keeping alive and well the British Raj. We are still subservient to their culture, instead of rediscovering our own culture.”
Vinoo thought about this now as he drove to Blackwall?
Did his Uncle Vishnu and his brother Potco think of him as a sellout simply because he did not live in Blackwall, and preferred to live in Knightsbridge?
Vinoo was not sure that this was the correct prescription.
Certainly, there was an aspect of living in Knightsbridge that was very fanciful and frivolous.
Vinoo’s Knightsbridge neighborhood was littered people who had never really worked as hard as he had, who had either inherited their wealth or taken short cuts, ones that were often morally compromised. There were, inevitably, the Hoorah Henry-type of English aristocrats, some of them inbred and titled and entitled, living on long lost glories. There were the nouveau riche Saudi princes with their padded and privileged lives and Russian oligarchs with their often sinister and shady means of attaining wealth. There were handfuls Third World dictators and Ministers of Finance, for whom a home in Knightsbridge was vehicle for their flight capital, when they needed to flee from being toppled from power by an abrupt coup d’état.
Nevertheless, the majority of Vinoo’s Knightsbridge neighbors, and the kinds of neighbors he and his wife invited to their Knightsbridge home, were people who had worked very hard to get where they were. Surgeons, lawyers, architects, engineers, enterprising business people, all of who had made something of their lives. Moreover, what Vinoo’s brother Potco and his Uncle Vishnu did not seem to appreciate, is that the main reason he sought their company was to provide modern role models of success for Vinoo’s children.
As an Indian immigrant whose children would have to navigate their lives and their careers in the West, Vinoo wanted the very best guidance and connections for his children. That is why, like Potco, Vinoo sent his children to the best schools that money could buy, and that is why, unlike Potco, Vinoo ensured that his children were well networked in the high caliber individuals who comprised the power brokers and the smart set of Knightsbridge society.
It was the way the real world worked.
Vinoo was savvy to understand the way the world worked, and what he considered to be best for this children’s future. Vinoo was a realist.
For this apparent ‘sin’ of being a realist, for being a man of the world; Vinoo sensed himself being judged unjustly by his somewhat self-righteous and idealistic brother Potco.
Potco kept producing showy examples of his moral superiority, such as his triumph last Christmas Eve, of proving Vinoo wrong about judging young Mitch, and proving to Vinoo that Mitch was hard working and reliable. It was just like when they were children in Mombasa, and members of the Boy Scouts, and Potco would always show Vinoo his latest merit badge.
Vinoo was not as sure as Potco was, that Potco held the moral high ground.
There was something about Potco’s ‘do-gooding’ that seemed forced and contrived, and smacked of a pious altruism, which seemed heavy handed.
Vinoo preferred, rather than a pious altruism, the purer altruism that is the natural byproduct of free market capitalism. Both Potco and Vinoo, when they built up the grocery business in Mombasa, and the subsequent trading enterprises, which made them rich business owners, practiced this pure altruism in the form of always rewarding their employees with excellent salaries and bonuses, and creating employment for hundred of people.
Recently, Vinoo’s son Rajesh, who was studying Economics for ‘A’ Level at Wellington, discussed his studies on the eighteenth century moral philosopher and pioneering political economist Adam Smith. Rajesh had explained to his father Vinoo, that in Smith’s classic work, The Wealth of Nations, Smith had used the metaphor of ‘The Invisible Hand’. The essence of Smith’s treatise on The Invisible Hand, as Rajesh explained it to Vinoo, is that by pursuing one’s self interest, one inadvertently, as a by product, benefits one’s community, and even the economy of one’s country.
This was certainly true of the hugely successful Provincial Overseas Trading Company, Ltd, (POTCO) that Potco pioneered in Mombasa, and which Vinoo helped Potco build, together with the backing of their Uncle Vishnu.
The company employed hundreds of workers, created livelihoods for people of all races, indiscriminately, and was a pure functioning meritocracy, whereby those who worked hard were well rewarded financially and were able to build lucrative futures for their themselves and their families. Vinoo was delighted to hear this idea of The Invisible Hand as recited by his son Rajesh.
He then proceeded to tell Rajesh a story of Svetaketu from The Chandogya Upanishad, which his own father Sashi had told Vinoo and Potco when they were children, and which also suggests The Invisible Hand: In ancient India, young Svetaketu asks his father to explain Truth to him. The father suggests that the Svetaketu bring a jar of salt to him, and then asks Svetaketu to pour the salt in a large container filled with water.
The father asks his son to then come back the next morning, whereupon he asks Svetaketu to taste the water from the left, from the right, from the center and from every angle imaginable.
In each case, the father asks Svetaketu what the water tastes like.
“It tastes like salt”, replies Svetaketu, on every tasting of the water.
“Can you see the salt?” asks the father to his son, Svetaketu.
“No, I cannot see the salt, father,” replies Svetaketu.
“Thus it is with Truth,” explains the father to young Svetaketu, “We know that Truth is Reality, and we can feel the presence of Truth, but we cannot see it because it is invisible to the naked eye. Just because it is invisible Svetaketu, it does not mean that Truth is not present. It is always present and present everywhere, on the left, on the right, in the center, everywhere.”
As Vinoo parked his Jaguar on the curbside in front of his brother Potco’s shop, he could already see, through the open front door and the clean and clear glass shop windows, that Potco’s newsagent shop was bustling with customers and doing a brisk business on Christmas Eve.
Vinoo felt pleased for his brother.
It was just past 9 am and the shop had been open for two hours. Vinoo walked in and greeted Lahkshmi and Potco, hung up his raincoat, and took his usual station at one of the counters with a cash register, and proceeded to ring in the sales from the line of customers. Presently, Lahkshmi brought over a hot cup of chai for the two brothers, and Potco and Vinoo took a brief tea break to catch up on family news. Potco also explained that young Mitch would be arriving at 10 am sharp, to deliver a few crate loads of Black Magic chocolate boxes, which were much in demand by the shop customers on Christmas Eve, as handy Christmas presents purchased at the last minute.
“You have trained that young Mitch well,” acknowledged Vinoo warmly to his brother, “He may go far in life thanks to you, Potco.”
Potco liked the thought of that.
“Mark my words,” Potco predicted, “Mitch will be here with the Black Magic chocolate boxes at 10 am sharp!”
Lahkshmi, who was standing within earshot, smiled at the thought of how her husband had taken his young protégé Mitch under his wing.
The customers kept swarming in and the boxes of chocolates on the shelves were being snapped up rapidly and the shelves were looking more and more sparse, as both Lahkshmi and Potco kept gazing at the front door and then back at their wristwatches, wondering why Mitch was delayed.
It was now almost half past eleven.
Vinoo could feel his brother becoming anxious, particularly when the two staff members, Lahkshmi, Potco and Vinoo himself, arrived at the point whereby they had to tell customers requesting boxes of chocolates that they had run out and were awaiting replenishment of supplies of Black Magic.
Lahkshmi could sense that Potco was becoming more and more irritable and concerned. She explained to Vinoo that it might be good for Potco to have some lunch, as he had not eaten since his early morning breakfast at half past four, when she had made him parathas. Vinoo volunteered to run to the fish and chips shop around the corner and fetch them all a much-needed lunch.
When Vinoo returned with the fish and chips it was already past noon.
Mitch had still not showed up. He was now two hours late.
Lahkshmi set up a small table in the back of the shop, behind the serving staff members, so that she and Vinoo and Potco could have their lunch of fish and chips. Lahkshmi had fetched the saltshaker, the peppershaker filled with Bombay chili powder, and the plastic squirt bottle with some tamarind sauce, which they all usually enjoyed with their fish and chips.
The lunch table was strategically placed so as Potco could have a clear view of the front entrance of the newsagent shop, through which he hoped that young Mitch would arrive with the much-needed replenished reserves of boxes of chocolates for the customers.
Potco pecked at his food and his brother and his wife tried their best to make light of a tense situation. Although none of them spoke of it, they all felt the shame of saying ‘No’ to the customers. An Indian businessman never should have to say ‘No’ to a willing and paying customer. It was practically a sin to say ‘No’ because it meant that you had been sloppy and inefficient in ensuring that sufficient provisions had been made to supply your clientele.
It was never done.
Having the foresight and vision to stock supplies for your customers was a given; it was embedded within the very fabric of the character of the enterprising Indian businessman. Vinoo knew how proud Potco was of his impeccable and unimpeachable reputation for all the decades he had been in business, to have always, without fail, supplied his customers with whatever they needed, when they needed it, on time, efficiently and responsibly.
Both Vinoo and Lahkshmi understood, at this moment, when Potco was losing his appetite for the fish and chips on his plate, when he was grasping the salt shaker tightly in his fist, and squeezing it anxiously; when he kept one eye on the front door of his beloved newsagent shop in the hopes of seeing Mitch emerge through; that Potco was most likely getting flashbacks of his stainless, spotless, flawless, unblemished and pristine record of never having a delivery arrive late in all of his years as an Indian businessman.
Vinoo felt his heart break for his brother, and silently prayed to all the Hindi gods he could recall, to miraculously produce Mitch at the door of the shop, and more importantly, to provide the much-needed Black Magic.
It was almost half past noon. Mitch was nowhere in sight.
Lahkshmi could no longer stand the tense atmosphere of the lunch. She clutched at the plastic squirt bottle of tamarind sauce, made a frail excuse about the fact that she needed to go upstairs and refill the bottle, and then swiftly disappeared up the stairs to the kitchen, and out of sight.
Vinoo knew full well that this had nothing to do with refilling the plastic bottle of tamarind, since there had been a sufficient amount in the bottle.
No, this had everything to do with Lahkshmi wanting to save face.
As with Vinoo, Lahkshmi’s heart was breaking for dear old Potco.
It was too much for both wife and brother to bear. To constantly hear customers requesting boxes of chocolates and to constantly hear the staff responding that they had run out of the stock and were awaiting replenishments, were now noises like loud drills in their ears. As every moment ticked by, the sounds became more and more torturous and unbearable. As every moment ticked by, the reputation of Potco, and of his pristine and exemplary legacy of the Provincial Overseas Trading Company, Ltd, (POTCO), took a hard knock, and began to erode and slide and slip away.
It was now a quarter past one, and still there was no sign of Mitch.
Lahkshmi had vanished upstairs and was probably pleading with the Lord Krishna himself, to provide a miracle in the midst of this looming disaster.
Meantime, Vinoo and Potco sat awkwardly beside each other, watching the front door of the shop, and sipping the cold chai, and nervously gazing at their wristwatches.
Not a word passed between either of them.
Vinoo eyed the mostly uneaten fish and chips on Potco’s plate.
“Brother,” said Vinoo gently and delicately, “Are you not going to eat your fish and chips?”
“No,” said Potco distractedly, “When Mitch arrives with the Black Magic then I will come back and finish my lunch.”
“Well,” responded Vinoo with some sprinkle of quiet cheer, “Then I will join you and we shall eat together, brother – you see, I still have a pile of chips on my plate that I have not even touched!”
Just after a half past one, a full three and a one half hours later than his expected time of arrival of ten o’clock, Mitch emerged through the front door of the shop and Potco and Vinoo stood up from their chairs. Potco then strode directly over to Mitch. Mitch was bringing in the dolly full of crates laden with the much-needed Black Magic chocolate boxes.
Potco and Mitch now stood face to face. That made the situation obvious.
Potco could see clearly that Mitch had a hangover. Mitch did not attempt to hide the fact, and spoke the first words:
“Yeah, sorry mate,” said Mitch in a groggy voice and with a vacant expression and bloodshot eyes, “’ad a bit too much to drink last night in’it?”
The two staff members scurried over, sensing the tension, and immediately unloaded the crates of Black Magic chocolate boxes from the dolly that Mitch brought in, and which he was using to support one side of himself as if he may fall over if he did not have the dolly as a crutch.
The silence was unbearable.
Potco could not find the words.
Lahkshmi, who had just come back downstairs to the back of the shop, now stood beside Vinoo as they both watched Potco and Mitch gazing at each other, Mitch with a glazed look, and Potco with a sharp look in his eyes.
Finally, Potco turned to Mitch and spoke one single sentence:
“Never in the history of The British Empire has a delivery been late in Potco’s business!”
Potco then left to join his brother Vinoo for lunch. Mitch dragged the empty dolly out of the shop and disappeared.
Lahkshmi had also disappeared she went back upstairs as soon as she saw Potco returning to the lunch table. Lahkshmi did not want to see her husband so sad and upset – it broke her heart to wonder what he was feeling inside. She returned to their living quarters and prayed to Lord Krishna that her husband would find peace.
Potco sat down quietly with Vinoo at the lunch table and they silently proceeded to complete the remaining food on their respective plates.
There was so much that Vinoo wanted to say to his beloved brother, but could not find the words in him, nor could he muster up the courage.
Vinoo munched on his chips awkwardly and then said the most mundane and bland words to Potco that unexpectedly came out of his mouth:
“Potco,” said Vinoo quietly, “Can you please pass the salt?”
KARIM AJANIA , January, 2016, All Rights Reserved
Registrant: Karim Ajania
Author: Karim Ajania
The Sadhu of Nairobi
Registration Number: 1822808
FILE NAME: Sadhu-of-Nairobi.docx
EFFECTIVE DATE: 2/1/2016