December 5, 2020

Manzil

(c) J. Singh, 2016

Widson Godfrey cupped his hands to get a handful of the cool water pouring out of the outlet from the hand pump on the roadside, and then splashed it onto his face. It was refreshing and a welcome relief in this stifling heat. It had been a long journey, but he had finally made it. He was exhausted, but feeling hopeful and excited. Soon, he would be reaching his destination. It had taken him over twenty years to be able to finally make this journey, and now the moment was finally going to arrive. He was filled with anticipation and wonder.

The bus nearby started rumbling, and that meant he had to go. He was in a foreign land, and was met with much suspicion wherever he went. Mostly people just stared at him, but a few times he had been questioned, and once accosted by a small group of men. But he had made it through the ordeal with only a few bruises and minor cuts. His mind was set on his destination, and he was determined to reach it.

He found a place in the bus where he would not be too conspicuous, and sat down. The driver started revving the engine, and more people poured into the bus. It was almost time to go.

Widson was in his thirties, a tall, thin man with a wiry frame. He was fluent in English but couldn’t speak any of the native languages. He felt lucky that most of the locals could at least understand English, and so he didn’t have too much trouble finding his way. One of the side-effects of being a former British colony.

This bus ride was shorter than many of the other ones that Widson had been on. After two hours, the bus stopped and the conductor announced where they were. People started filing out of the bus, just as another crowd was pushing and shoving their way to get in. Widson picked up his small bag and stood in the aisle among the crowd.

After getting off the bus, he seemed to be lost. There were buildings all around, and they all seemed to be residential. The sun beat down mercilessly, making it feel like he was in an oven. He called out to the conductor, who was leaning out of the bus hanging on with one hand and looking like he was almost about to fall out. The conductor pointed to an unspecified location that was behind Widson. And then the bus rolled off, rumbling and groaning with the new load of passengers, leaving behind strong diesel fumes and a cloud of dust.

Widson turned around but only saw more residential buildings. There was a very narrow road that went that way, enveloped on both sides by buildings. An open sewer ran alongside the road. Children were playing dangerously close to it. The road didn’t seem even wide enough for a car to pass through. Widson sighed and walked towards it. He would follow it as far as he could, he thought, and see where it led him.

The shade was a welcome relief. As he walked past, the children abruptly stopped playing and stood in silence, staring. He smiled and waved.

It didn’t take long to come out on the other side, which seemed like a different world. Here, there was a lively market with many customers and vendors. The sounds were festive and upbeat. Canvas awnings had been installed along the streets to provide shade from the unrelenting sun, and glasses of cool lemonade and ice water were being sold by the street vendors. Widson smiled as he soaked up the positive, vibrant energy. He knew he was close to his destination now.

He stayed in the shade as much as he could, walking along the roadside and looking for some indication that he was on the right path. Eventually, he saw it. As he turned the corner, the space widened out and he saw the large arch for the entry. He gasped, feeling his pulse quicken.

Distant memories came flooding back. He had only been ten years old when the catastrophic earthquake had struck in his hometown. There had been destruction everywhere. He remembered it vividly, even now. The ground shaking, how all the buildings had started collapsing, leaving devastation everywhere. He remembered his friends and neighbors sleeping outside in the streets, for fear of getting caught in the aftershocks. He had lost most of his family that day. After sleeping on the streets for days, he had eventually found his way into a makeshift shanty town, where he had languished until one of the several groups of aid workers had found him. He hadn’t eaten in several days, was weak and was shivering uncontrollably with a high fever. There had been nobody to fend for him. Infection had taken hold and spread. He was delirious.

He remembered a pair of arms scooping him up from the ground, gathering him up and covering him with a warm blanket. He remembered a soothing female voice, but in his fever-induced state, he didn’t know who it belonged it. Vague memories of being bundled up in the back of a vehicle, and a long car ride with lots of turns and stops. The aid workers brought him to their encampment. There, he was treated with medicine. They put him in a warm, soft bed, with a pillow and blankets. He slept here, his first proper nights rest in weeks. As he pulled the blanket over him and curled up inside, it felt like heaven. He slept. He would wake up and someone would feed him. He had to get his energy back. Eventually he did, and the aid workers spoke to him in his native Creole, asking him how he was feeling. He asked about his family, and they promised to look for them. It was very difficult, they told him, since there was so much rubble, and they were
still sorting through everything. But at least the tremors had stopped.

These aid workers were a sight that Widson had never seen before. They wore blue turbans and had long, flowing beards. He did not know who or what they were. Only that they were helping him and treating him. And giving him food and shelter. He felt grateful for their help. One of them, the one they called Rattan Singh, would come to his bedside every day and check in on him. When he had recovered from the fever, Rattan started taking him on walks so that he could
exercise and get his energy back. He asked Rattan about the turban, and Rattan showed him a small photograph that he carried in his wallet. It was a shining structure, covered in gold, and illuminated by lights. Widson gazed in wonder at the image. Rattan explained that it was the epicenter of his Faith. He was here helping the people because that was his purpose in life.

They never found Widson's parents. It was assumed that they had perished in the earthquake. But his elder sister Harriet was alive, and they were eventually united. Eventually, after they had re-established enough of their infrastructure, and had access to clean water again, the aid workers moved on. Ratan had to leave, and Widson spent a long time hugging him and crying. After his parents, it was Rattan who had cared for him the most. Grateful for saving his life, Widson asked
what he could do to repay them. Rattan shook his head, smiling. There was no need for repayment, he said.

Widson never ate without repeating the chant that he had learned from Rattan and his friends. “Vaaheguroo, Vaaheguroo, Vaaheguroo, Vaaheguroo, Vaaheguroo! Vaaheguroo Ji Ka Khalsa, Vaaheguroo Ji Ki Fateh!” He didn’t know what it meant, but he had adopted it as a means to stay connected with his memory of Rattan.

It was during his stay with the aid workers that he had made the decision. It was a personal, private dream that he had nurtured, something that had helped him make it through the long days when he was recovering and getting his strength back. And now, finally, his childhood dream was coming to fruition. Here he stood, in front of that magnificent building he had seen only in a photograph so many years ago. The moment was overwhelming.

In front of him, gleaming in the sunlight, laden with gold, was the place that Rattan had held so dear. It was from here that Rattan had derived his inspiration to travel thousands of miles to save the lives of complete strangers. Surrounded by a lake of water, it looked serene and peaceful.

After removing his shoes and covering his head, Widson walked down the steps onto the marble floor. The sound of soulful singing and music reached his ears. It sounded familiar. The place was filled with people of all types, some taking a dip in the water, others walking past. The atmosphere was one of peace and tranquility.

Overcome with emotion, Widson fell to his knees. His feeling of gratitude came flooding back, and he remembered the kindness which Rattan and his colleagues had shown to him. They had given him shelter, food, medicine and love. Because of them, he was alive. And because of this place, they existed. He felt something stirring deep inside him. He wasn’t able to contain it. Tears welled up in his eyes and came streaming down his face. “Thank you!” he sobbed, as he kissed the
ground. “Thank you!”

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