Paul Barker came from a family of ranchers and cotton farmers, proud of its herd of quarter horses, from the South Plains of Texas. When the conscription act of 1917 came into force, Paul’s father, only twenty then, bluffed his age and registered for military service, in spite of the protests of his pregnant wife. He was duly drafted and dispatched to the trenches of Europe which retained his bones forever.
When Paul packed his bags for the army, his grandfather went into a shock that settled around his ageing heart like an albatross. He died of a broken neck when he fell from a horseback in the November of 1942, shortly after Paul was cherry-picked for his exceptional marksmanship and assigned to the special services detachment at Ledo in India.
The message was forwarded to Paul from the Infantry Division stationed at Camp Berkeley, also stating that his mother was grievously ill.
Paul’s request for permission to visit the states was kept on hold, albeit with regrets, in view of the critical stage of operations the detachment was poised at. What embittered him further, he was ordered to deliver an envelope to a buck private, which, he was sure, contained a license to free holidaying in San Francisco, thanks to a demented lieutenant.
As surmised by Paul, Amar Singh was granted a special leave to escort Vernon Brown to San Francisco, via Bombay and Sydney. The envelop contained his travel orders, cashable to tickets, and two months travel pay totaling $100, with instructions to report to Major Russell at Building 35 in the Presidio of San Francisco, Western Defense Command, within 24 hours of disembarkation.
Vernon and Amar had to hold back the cheers till Paul was well out of sight. They kept feeling sorry for the second lieutenant long after that.
Vernon had a lost look in his eyes as they moved up the gangway on the ocean liner to Sydney on the first day of the year 1943. But he was getting used to crutches and was agile and spry, unmindful of the gusts of wind fluttering a lower leg of his trousers at a sharp angle. They returned to the deck after depositing their frugal luggage in their cabin. They stood peering at the arch of the Gateway, dwarfed by Taj Mahal hotel at its left.
‘Are you going to miss the place out there?’ Vernon asked Amar.
‘I wonder who I will miss there. I’d prefer to forget most of my life that was. But I know all those people there, even though they are sad, poor and -dirty.’ Amar spoke ruefully, more to himself than Vernon.
‘Look hard at those structures, Amar. They may be the last view you may have of that intractable country of yours. You may not see another bullock cart, or a naked beggar bawling for baksheesh, for the rest of the days you live.’ He paused. ‘Or even if you’re going to face them again, something is going to be missing from them, or you, as you meet them. You are never the same anymore, anywhere. Never the whole. Nothing is.’
The vessel was abuzz with civilians and soldiers of all nationalities. The Indian Ocean remained uncannily calm, as if expecting the Japanese Navy to erupt from its bowels any moment. The ship was escorted by a lone destroyer charting a mildly zigzagged course. It had a small lounge but a clean, uncluttered deck. Food was bland and inadequate but it didn’t seem to matter. Amar couldn’t stomach the meat and Vernon seemed to have lost his appetite. Vernon had struck up acquaintance with a group of British merchants and had taken to smoking cigars, even when lying on the bunk, much to Amar’s discomfort.
‘No good boxer smokes. It will roast your lungs,’ Amar blurted out one day, but felt sorry the moment it slipped out of his mouth.
Vernon thought for a while and laughed before he spoke, ‘No good smoker boxes. I will go down my grave blazing. Am I annoying you?’
‘Not at all, not at all!’ Amar said quickly.
‘Didn’t they smoke, the merchants you met in Rangoon?’
‘Actually, they did. I hated them when they blew smokes in my face and swore.’
‘There! You hate smoke because you hated those overbearing cretins.’
‘To tell you the truth, I absolutely despised them.’ Amar told him. ‘Except the plump Mr. Allison who never touched tobacco.’
‘And none other than Charles Dickens is teaching you the language now!’ Vernon was all smiles. ‘I am impressed, for sure.’
Amar had found used volumes of ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ in Calcutta and was going through them attentively. He’d note down tons of words he didn’t know with a pencil stub in a diary, and search Vernon for their meanings.
Vernon slept through most of the days and kept haunting the deck in the dusks and nights, flitting past and leaning against the balustrade perilously. Instead of whistling, he had taken to crooning some tune Amar had never heard before. When he found Amar staring wistfully at the setting sun in the Indian Ocean one evening, he asked him if he had a loved one. Pointing to the deepening colours of the purple-orange sky, Amar said she was up there. Vernon sang out the opening stanza of the song softly:
‘Red sails in the sunset, way out on the sea Oh, carry my loved one home safely to me, baby He sailed at the dawning, all the day I’ve been blue, baby Red sails in the sunset, I’m trusting in you…’
Moving out of Ceylon, they touched the shores of Melbourne in a month’s time, where the ship had a three days’ layover. They visited Luna Park at St. Kilda, went upstream the brown Yarra in a boat and went to see the portrait of naked Chloe at Young and Jackson Hotel on a whim, before they were bound for Sydney, landing there on 7th of February. Vernon brightened up visibly in Sydney, ‘We are out of the nomadic lands, at last. But it’s not home.’
He said the Harbour Bridge was not a patch on the Golden Gate Bridge. He bought some toys for the twins, a hat each for Hazel and his mother, and John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ for Amar. They left Sydney aboard USS Hermitage three days later and arrived San Francisco on 2nd of March.
It was a cold and rainy evening as the ship passed under the Golden Gate Bridge to regurgitate its passengers on the Port of San Francisco. Vernon seemed to be breathing deeply, savouring every ounce of the aura, his eyes clinched shut. ‘I can smell the Bay, Amar. I can feel it running in my veins, mingling with my heart, and it has started thumping again.’ As they turned toward the piers, the drizzle turned into rain.
‘Does it rain a lot here like Assam?’ Amar asked.
‘Oh no! It’s just a blessing from the Pacific skies to rinse the festering grime off our necks.’ Vernon said. His teeth glistened in a fresh burst of shower. He saluted the clock tower of the ‘Ferry Building’, and introduced it to Amar. As they walked out of the arched building on to Embarcadero, he hailed a Yellow Cab and asked him to head to Beach Street in Marina.
Amar could swear that something about San Francisco was surely different, now unrolling before him in neat rows of magnificent buildings and streets, glistening with neon signs of all kinds. He could feel a warmth about people as they moved about, so different from the aloofness of Melbourne or Sydney.
‘And this, my friend, is Broadway, where you see more than portraits.’ Vernon winked. ‘And here we move to Columbus Avenue…’ He was one proud guide.
Not unduly, thought Amar. He had read about Columbus who had set out to discover a new route to Asia in search of silk and spices, and opium, and landed on this earth instead. And look what his men turned it into! A glittering paradise of the wiser race. And where were they, the naked, nomadic tribes of this land? Will his own country also look like this in a few years, with the natives gone with the famines and epidemics? Or will the Japanese conquer it and turn it into who knows what? He had no idea of what Japanese did to people and lands. If the Chinese were to be believed, they were looters, rapists, arsonists, butchers and reckless murderers. That is what they keep doing in China. And they bombed thousands of Americans to muck in Pearl Harbor a year and a few months back. And they wanted to be the new Columbus –much crueler and faster. Then there were the Nazis too.
Vernon chimed in as they turned left for Bay Street. Amar had a glimpse of the much serenaded cable car trundling down to his left as they sped ahead. And they stopped in front of a small house with arched bay windows and red tiled roof. Vernon paid off the cab and entered the small porch. His arrival was going to be a shock for the family in more ways than one. The prodigal son had returned on a leg and crutches, without having blown up even one traitor of mankind. But he had carried back home his beating heart.
Hazel’s face changed several colours when she saw Vernon; her hand flew to clasp her mouth. Then she noticed the crutches and the shoeless right leg. ‘Oh my God! Vern- Mom, look who’s come home!’ Tears rolled down Vernon’s cheeks and jaws. And he kept saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’
‘I’m sorry, too, Vern.’ Hazel said.
It was long before he would introduce Amar. ‘Folks, I’m here because of this tireless man, Private Amar Singh. I had fallen unconscious from the plane into dense forests after I blew my foot in an accident up there. He carried me day and night on his back to safety. He is a gem I found in that blasted jungle of humanity.’
The twins kept gaping at them from a distance. Vernon’s mother spoke little. She thanked Amar, and then thanked Vernon for coming home. She seemed perturbed and pleased at the same time. ‘You won’t know what it is like to have one of your son’s back, Vern. More so when you’ve lost the other.’
Hazel turned up with cakes and coffee from the kitchen. Amar wouldn’t dare look at her. He had heard countless paeans to her beauty from Vernon but he had never imagined that she would be so beautiful as to scorch the eyes to look at. Her face was a flawless oval. She had hazel-blue, thin-almond eyes, arched eyebrows and pale golden hair. She was a shapely woman who made him feel small with her sheer grace.
Hazel grew uneasy when she learned Amar was going to stay with them for a while, till he got further orders. Vernon’s mother said she would be happy to have Amar provided he could read stories to Carrie and Ron. As if on cue, the kids ran to their room and returned with their story books. Ron flashed a picture book titled ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’. Carrie was pushing a book called ‘Millions of Cats’ under his face.
‘Amis? Can I call you Amis? Have you heard about all those cats?’ Carrie asked Amar in a thin voice.
‘Amis I am!’ Amar flashed his best smile. ‘And I’ll be reading about all those cats soon.’
Those were the first words spoken by Amar in that home in his weird accent and tone. They were amused, but Vernon noticed that his language had improved a lot since Ledo.
‘And you’ll be reading about ‘Peter the Rabbit’ too, won’t you, Amis?’ Ron said a bit hotly.
‘I will, little one.’
‘And you will take us to the Playland, and the Golden Gate, and the Chinatown to get us crackers? You know the way? The cable cars?’ Ron poured out. ‘Mama doesn’t have the time.’
‘No, Mama is alone. And Grandma is alone,’ Carrie corrected him.
‘We’ll all be together now,’ Vernon chipped in. And the two of you should call him Uncle Amis.’
‘Call him Uncle Amis? But only white uncles are uncles!’ Ron protested weakly.
‘But he is not black with woolly hair,’ Carrie snapped at Ron. ‘He’s got Chinatown hair!’
‘Who fed you that garbage, Ron?’ Vernon was highly embarrassed.
‘No one fed me nothing -. I just know!’ Ron was going to cry.
‘Hold it, all of you!’ Vernon’s mother intervened. ‘Look at me here, Ron and Carrie. Amis is a brown man, just as we all are Browns, aren’t we? So he’s got to be an uncle.’
‘But, he is not our Brown. He is just brown!’