Sunday, May 06, 2007

Conversations At C-543

In December 2003 my wife and I made a rental contract with a man I will refer to as Mr. J. The apartment is less that a 1000 sq. ft has two bedrooms, sitting room and two bathrooms. There is neither hot nor cold and running water, just a pipe that runs from the water tank on the roof. Daytime temperatures determine whether our bucket baths are hot or cold. C-543, a section of the city where we live, is a typical flat of 1960’s construction, which includes a kitchen that is the size of a walk-in-closet in the states.

When we met Mr. J. for the first time he was wearing a white khadi kurta and a Nehru hat. He was a pleasant man with impeccable English and, as we quickly found out, opinionated.

“Are you a Muslim,” he asked?

“No,” I replied, “I’m a Christian from America. Is that a problem?”

“Being an American is not too much of a problem. I usually don’t rent to Americans as they are fussy and make too many demands to rent the apartment,” he said. Then he added, “I never rent to Muslims.”

Through tea and biscuits (cookies) we learned more about each other. The J’s were in their early 80’s, Punjabi’s originally from Lahore (Pakistan) who was forced out of their home at the time of partition (when India and Pakistan divided into two countries after independence from Britain in 1948). Since being displaced from his homeland Mr. J. has a disdain from Muslims and thus the reason for his question about my religion. He told me that with my beard I looked like a mullah, a Muslim teacher. If I have had been an American Muslim he probably wouldn’t have rented to us.

The J’s are not in good health. Mrs. J is a plumb woman with diabetes. She is a kind woman who is a practicing Hindu who prays each morning before her god and is a strict vegetarian. Mr. J. has diseased esophagus and can only drink soup six times a day. Mr. J is an educated man with a PhD in economics and before retirement worked for the government. Mr. J is a cultural Hindu who has never been a religious person; probably an agonistic at best and I suspect much of his life he was an atheist.

We have lived above the J’s nearly four years. Mr. J. is now bedfast and only with great effort is he able to go to the toilet. His days and nights are spent in bed wishing to die. Last week my wife and I recently returned to the states for the summer and as I said goodbye to my eighty-six year old friend, who now weighs less than eighty pounds, I wonder if he will be alive when I return to India in July?

Each evening when I am in town I visit this dear old man and we discuss everything from the price of papaya to politics to religion. Mr. J. has given me many insights into the Indian culture, especially the worldview of a past generation. In the next few posts I will be sharing my conversations with my landlord at C-543 who has become a good friend whom I have learned to love. The great mystery to me is why God would orchestrate us finding each other? In a city of 12 million people our relationship is not by chance, though I do not see our relationship having any eternal value. Whatever the reason for our relationship I hope you will enjoy some of the insights gained in the conversation at C-543.