In India With Mr. S

India itself was a world of extremes – the antipodes brought together on every street corner


In India With Mr. S
by pomegranate

One day at work, Mr. S walked in from across the narrow alleyway separating his store from my father’s. A short but powerful man, he strode in without waiting for an invitation, as was his custom, and sat next to my father. He had small, shrewd eyes set in a bulging face and a thick neck the size of a stovepipe – in manner and in appearance, one who intimidates others and uses it to his full advantage.

The man was well known as a ruthless type whom most people tried to steer clear of if at all possible. He was not afraid of confrontation, and in fact seemed to relish it, many times cursing and berating his workers and his son at the top of his lungs. I would watch him from our store sometimes, standing at his doorway with his thumbs hooked over his belt, surveying the street and its motley denizens as though a prince looking over his subjects. But there was an animal cunningness in him that matched that ruthless nature; he reminded me of a wolf that strikes without remorse or compunction. Just as it was in the nature of the wolf to do so, so it was with Mr. S. He expected no less from his adversaries and when it was not forthcoming, it confused him.

Although he had at most a sixth grade education, he had accumulated a good deal of wealth over the years and outwardly seemed only concerned with gathering more. A few months after the revolution, his son was killed – the official story being that he was hit by a stray bullet while standing on his rooftop, a story my father found hard to believe. A day after the death, Mr. S was back in his shop, working as usual. “That man is a son of a bitch. I can’t believe that kid of his is dead – he was a sweet boy,” my father said to me one day. “I’m sure he had something to do with it – you saw how he treated him.”

Salaam aleikum,” he bellowed in his thick Turkish accent as he leaned forward toward my father.

Haleh shoma, agha,” my father responded.

“I’ve come here to let you know that I need your son to help me with a business trip I am planning to India.”

I had already helped him from time to time, typing out letters to his suppliers on a rickety machine in his office while he dictated his demands. It was odd, sitting in his chaotic shop and warehouse, workers running around bagging and boxing all manner of spare parts for shipment to different parts of Iran while he alternately screamed at the help and then asked me to tell Mr. Zhang from the Socialist Spare Parts Manufacturing Cooperative in Shanghai that the leaf springs he had just received were totally unacceptable and that he expected a discount on his next order. We went back and forth on the best way to phrase a particular demand and soon enough, he began to defer to my judgment. I began to feel that the four years I had spent abroad was proving its worth.

My ears perked up at his comment, but he was staring directly at my father.

“I need someone I can trust to act as an interpreter. I want David to come with me.”

“How long would this be for?” my father asked.

“One week. Of course I would pay for all his expenses. Plane ticket, hotel, food.”

“That’s very kind of you, but I think he needs to be paid for his efforts as well, don’t you?”

“Paid? Yes – well we’ll work something out. Let me know as soon as possible.” And with that he stormed out.

My father looked over at me. “You won’t go anywhere until we reach an agreement with him over payment. The man is a son of a whore and can’t be trusted an inch.” Many years later, my father told me that Mr. S’s own brother had come up to him one day and called his brother a walad el zena – an illegitimate bastard.

I shrugged. The thought of getting out of Iran and seeing India, even for a week, sounded too good to pass up.

“Do you see how he is now? Acting all religious and growing a beard? Now he won’t go near alcohol and swears that his son was martyred in the name of Islam. Before the revolution, he had the Shah’s pictures hanging all around and was always talking about what a great monarch we had. He changes with the blowing of the wind.”

“Yeah, you’re right Dad.” But my mind was on India.

A few weeks later, the financial arrangements having been made, Mr. S and I were sitting in Mehrabad Airport at midnight, waiting to board the Air France jet to New Delhi. At that time, the few foreign carriers that continued to land in Iran did so with a minimum of downtime, wanting to get the hell out of the country as soon as possible.

We were truly an odd couple. A twenty-three year old, completely westernized Jewish college graduate accompanying a devout Moslem merchant from Ardebil with nothing on his mind but money. Or so I thought.

Boarding the plane was like entering a different world. Beautiful stewardesses passed by, their long hair falling freely. Men and women were sitting next to each other, talking and laughing in public. It came as somewhat of a shock to the system.

As soon as we sat down, one of the stewardesses came by to see if we wanted some refreshments. Mr. S turned to me. “Tell her I want a Scotch over ice.” I nearly choked but managed to give the hostess our order.

He looked at her and said clearly “Dubl, dubl!” holding up two fingers. Without batting an eyelash, she smiled.

Bien sûr, monsieur. Un Scotch double pour vous.”

He must have consumed at least four or five Scotches by the time we arrived, without any apparent effect. As we walked out the main cabin door, I staggered back against the wall of shimmering heat that hit me full on. He clapped me on the shoulder and exclaimed jovially, “Welcome to India, Agha Davood.”

Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple.

Going through customs, the agent took one look at my passport and asked me to step aside. Mr. S had already been waved through. He looked at me and I shrugged as I was led away to a waiting room. Seated alone in the whitewashed room with a few chairs and a table, I wasn’t sure what was going but was thankful for the electric fan that whirred overhead. The heat and humidity were stifling and it felt as though I had stood in the shower with my clothes on.

Shortly, the door opened and two police officers walked in, one holding my passport.

“What seems to be the problem, gentlemen?”

In clipped English, the tall one responded. “You don’t have a visa to enter India.”

“Well, that’s because your consulate in Iran told me that I did not need one.”

“That changed a few days ago. All Iranian men under the age of 25 now need a visa to enter the country.”

Bloody hell. This sounded like The Twilight Zone.

“How was I supposed to know that? When I contacted them they told me there was no need to get any visa.”

“I’m sorry. These are the rules. We cannot let you in without a visa and you’ll have to return on the next plane out.”

This was insane. “There must be some way we can deal with this. I am here with an Iranian businessman – he was let through just ahead of me. We’re staying for a week and are here strictly on business. Look, I even have a return ticket.”

“I’m very sorry. Without having any one here to vouch for you, we cannot let you in.”

Who the hell was going to vouch for me here? Maybe Mr. S could get his Indian contacts to do something, but with his limited English vocabulary, that was doubtful. The sight of him holding up two fingers and saying “Dubl, dubl” to the Yves St Laurent-clad stewardess made me laugh out loud, and the two officers looked at each other as though their worst suspicions about me were confirmed.

Then it hit me. My mother had been close with an Indian doctor at her place of work, the beautiful and elegant Dr. Sharma. I had met her a few times and she had visited our house once or twice for tea. Tall and in her fifties, she was something to behold in her shimmering silk sari, gold and saffron shifting about in a dizzying kaleidoscope of color.

She and my mother had quickly formed a bond at work, two like-minded individuals both interested in culture and the arts.

Dr. Sharma was now in India, and my mother had insisted I take her address and phone number along with me in case I needed to get in touch with someone. Thanks Mom.

“Hold on a moment. I have the name of someone here who may be able to provide the assurance you are looking for.” I pulled out my wallet and extracted the slip of paper.

“Who is that?”

“Dr. Sharma, a well known blood pathologist who lives here in New Delhi.”

“How do you know her?” This had obviously thrown a wrench into their plans.

“She’s a friend of our family.”

They took the paper and looked at it suspiciously. Discussing it with his partner for a few minutes, the tall one turned to me and said, “Wait here” and walked out.

Some time later, he returned and asked me to follow him to another office. This was not as spartan, a rug was thrown on the floor and behind the desk facing me was seated another officer, higher-ranking, judging from the gold insignia on his collar.

He got up and extended his hand. “Please sit down,” he said courteously.

Swarthy and trim with neatly trimmed moustache, he seemed quite the gentleman.

“I have Dr. Sharma on the phone for you. It took a while to contact her at the hospital where she works.” He passed the receiver to me.

“Hello, is this David?” Her voice sounded musical.

“Yes, hello Dr. Sharma. How are you?”

“I’m fine, how are you?” She sounded concerned. “The police officer told me about your dilemma.”

I was embarrassed about the fuss. “Yes, I am so sorry to have disturbed you, but did not know where to turn. Apparently there was a sudden change in the visa requirements that I was not aware of.”

“That’s quite all right, David. I have some contacts at the Ministry who can sort this out right away. I have already mentioned it to the officer in charge.”

“I’m grateful for your help. Thanks.”

“Not at all. How is your mother by the way? Can you come visit us while you’re in town?”

“She’s fine – sends her regards. I’m not too sure I will have time to come by – this is a business trip and I’m bound by a tight schedule.”

We ended our conversation and I handed the receiver back He spoke into it for a few more moments then laid it to rest on the cradle.

“Well, it seems as though you may be able to enter India after all. Your friend is quite well-connected. We should be hearing from the Interior Ministry shortly.”

“That’s great.” I felt greatly relieved.

“I want to apologize for the inconvenience. Unfortunately, it’s really out of our hands and we have to follow the rules. You can understand.” He seemed very sympathetic.

“Not at all, I completely understand. How come the visa rules changed all of a sudden?”

He hesitated.

“It’s a little delicate. Apparently, the Iranian students here are demonstrating against the new government in Iran and causing disturbances. The Indian government does not want any more trouble and is trying to control the situation, so they are watching who comes and goes very carefully.”

I should have known.

India itself was a world of extremes – the antipodes brought together on every street corner. Rich and poor, leper and healthy, the beautiful and the ugly; they all lived together and milled around like a billion ants in a colony.

Each day was a surreal mixture of factory visits and negotiations, followed by heavenly meals of chicken tandoori, rice biryani and naan all washed down by liberal quantities of beer. For seven days, that is all I had for lunch and dinner.

Stopping at a red light in a taxicab in the New Delhi dusk, the air warm and sticky, we would be surrounded silently by the beggars and lepers, drawn to us like moths to light. The women holding their babies in one hand, the one-eyed lepers with stumps for feet, all with their arms outstretched through their ragged saris and shawls. The light turned green and they scattered again, without a word. Driving on and we would see the parks littered with the homeless, laying down on the ground or on benches for their nightly rest, children next to their mothers.

We left the city and headed north, toward Ludhiana in the foothills of the Hindu Kush where the scenery turned lush and green. Even there the mass of humanity was everywhere one looked. Driving madly down the two-lane road, half of each lane taken up by swarms of people on foot, on bicycles and on scooters, I held on white-knuckled as the driver careened through the crowds and traffic. Where were all these people going?

We had been invited over for dinner one evening by one of the factory owners Mr. S was dealing with. Sitting in the large, ornate drawing room as evening was approaching, I noticed a large dog scampering out at the other end.

“That’s a big dog,” I remarked to the host’s son.

“Oh, that’s a monsoon rat,” he replied nonchalantly. “They come out before the rains start.”

I had my first taste of mango there. Sitting outside for breakfast one day, the waiter brought over a clear glass of yellow-orange nectar, sparkling in the early morning air. I tasted the heavenly fruit and it was like a million suns exploding on the way down, making me smile each time I remembered it.

The day before we were to return, I visited a sari shop near our hotel. Walking in, silks hanging like clouds in rows of every imaginable hue and color, I was dazzled and did not know which way to turn. I spent every last dollar I had on seven of the ephemeral garments and brought them up to my room to pack away.

“What did you buy?” Mr. S asked.

“Some saris as presents.”

“Presents? How many did you buy?”

“Seven.” I thought of Fereshteh, her waist bejeweled by the gold and yellow fabric.

He laughed and shook his head.

At the airport, waiting for our return flight, I saw him going in and out of the duty free stores, eyeing the liquor bottles. Finally, he came out of one carrying what seemed like a magnum of Johnny Walker under his arm.

“Mr. S, what is this?” I asked, alarmed.

He was holding it like a mother would hold its baby.

“I want to take this back with me to Tehran. Do you know how much it’s worth?”

“How are you going to get it through customs? Isn’t it kind of obvious?”

“I’ll just wrap it in a paper bag and hold it under my coat. Like this, see?”

He covered the bottle with one flap of his jacket. The neck protruded out like a shotgun barrel from under his arm.

The man is deranged, I thought to myself.

“I’m not so sure it’s a good idea. You know if they catch you, they’ll take that away and all your money would have gone to waste,” I said gently. Not to mention dragging us down to the revolutionary komiteh for a good lashing.

The thought of losing his hard-earned money sobered him somewhat. I could see his brain turning over and calculating the risks. Finally, logic won over and he announced, “You’re right David Agha. It’s not worth it,” and walked back to the store with a lamentable look on his face.

Back home handing out my presents to all and sundry, I felt like Marco Polo at the Venetian court, doling out the exotic gifts he had brought back from his travels, smiling and happy.


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Pomegranate And Mangoes...delicious read..:)

by Miny (not verified) on were in Ludhiana sometime...great!!...and you liked India...great too..and the alcoholism has gripped punjab like anything..thats your Uncle Mr. S...

but fancy what even those Punjabis who dont know english they start speaking english after a couple of of my friend would know from college that her father was drunk...coz when he was drunk he would answer the telephone saying.."Yes yes Englishman speaking" ..haha ha

Just wondering if Mr. S ever showed any improvement in English after his drinks..

Mr. S stands for Mr. spicy i guess...


loved it!

by shadi (not verified) on

loved it!