The Trees Have Been Here Before

By Sheela Jaywant


“Bai, Romi-taxicar said the guests from Dubai have cancelled the bookings.”

“They told him? They haven’t phoned me. This is the second time this week there’s a sudden cancellation.”

“Bai, Romi-taxicar has not shown his face here for many days. He has not even come to collect his commission for last week.”

“Eh? You didn’t tell me that before.”

“I thought maybe he was busy or ill, but maybe there’s something more happening.”

“Phone him now. Call him here. We can’t lose business and not know the reason. In October things were smooth, November we were only half full. We’re in December, mid-season; we have to make our money this month and the next. Christmas-New-Year is peak time in Goa. The prices of rooms fall in February and by April the foreign-charters will stop. With Indian tourists, from May to September, we don’t make big profit, no? Only at this time of the year, they are willing to pay high market rates. Call Romi-taxicar, I want to ask him what’s happening.”

Romi-taxicar came by shortly, as if he was just around the corner, waiting to enter if called. He stood quietly at the door, leaning against the wall. Though he was looking at her straight in the eye, he seemed uneasy, his thumbs clinging to his trouser-pockets, his face expressionless.

“I don’t know why they’ve cancelled, Bai,” he said flatly when she demanded an answer. “How would I know why they didn’t tell you or who will bear the loss?”

“You’re lying. We have worked together for years. You have got, and on time, commission on every guest you have brought to me. You owe me the truth.”

Romi chewed the inside of his cheeks, pursed his lips, inhaled audibly, but stayed silent.  

“I’m going to get to the bottom of this,” she said. “I will phone those guests and ask what happened. I will check with the other hotels to find out if they had any cancellations.”

“Can I go? Can I get my last week’s money now?”

“You can go, but you’ll get the money only after I find out what happened.”

“I want my money. Now.”

Never before had Romi been insolent, and she had known him for at least 25 years, from the time she’d got married and come to this village. After her father-in-law died, her alcoholic husband began to sell his little inheritance, bit by bit. Fortunately for her, Goan (Portuguese) law gave her a right, a share in the property. She took full advantage of what was hers and, with her mother-in-law, Mai’s support, converted a small room attached to the house into a grocery-store. It did well. In spite of her husband’s constant demands for money and bitter quarrels over his abusive habits, she managed her finances well, made sure her daughters went to a good school, and decided to spread her wings. Tourism had given the aam-Goan a chance to make money. She rode the wave.

 

*

Her next venture was a bar-cum-restaurant. Romi helped her to get the permissions and licences for it. It—just an extension of her house, really-- stood right on the main road which went to Calangute, a very popular beach. Whilst rich tourists enjoyed their holidays in the starred hotels, their drivers ate and drank in places like hers. She gave Romi, Rs 30 for every customer he brought. She and Mai sold and served home-cooked meals and invested the money they made in soft-drinks, instant foods, packaged snacks, fresh-fruit-juicers, rubber footwear, condoms... anything on which they could make a profit.

When jealous villagers whined about her not being a niz-Goemkar, or daughter of the soil, she shut them up by giving their young adult offspring opportunities to earn a living. Most of them were school dropouts with nil interest in farming, fishing, or any of the traditional, inherited occupations. She used her contacts to get them jobs: as tourist-guides, delivery boys, mechanics, loaders, photographer-assistants, sim-cards-salesmen.

With a good-for-nothing, inebriated husband in the house, Romi was the one she depended upon for many things.

It was a symbiotic relationship. In a competitive environment, Romi needed her as much as she needed someone like him. She had loaned him money when he wanted to buy a second taxi.

When her daughters were in primary school, they were cared for by Mai, whilst she shopped for the restaurant, dealt with health inspectors, wrote out vouchers, kept accounts and managed the staff. Actually, the staff and she used to have a lot of fun working together. The cook from Bihar, the two Manipuri waiters who also kept the compound clean, the odd-job man from Andhra, the Rajasthani carpenter-cum-electrician who waltzed in and out in times of need, the Maharashtrian woman who came in twice a day to wash the vessels and mop the floor. All were young and ready to work to earn. There was laughter and joy and zest in that team.

In five years’ time, she modified the house so she could rent out four rooms, and subsequently she added on another four and called her enterprise Sheena’s Home.

The camaraderie dissipated, but the income increased. Her daily living became fine-tuned. She was up before dawn. By 7:30 am, breakfast was over, and lunch packed for the girls who left by 8. She worked alongside her staff and usually had her own lunch around 3:30 when business slacked a bit. Her daughters returned at 4. She sometimes checked their homework, mostly helped Mai get things ready for dinner, and back she went to the counter to ‘be there’. Bedtime was seldom before midnight.

The old jungle trees that had stood sentinel over that little house-cum-hotel throwing inviting shade over her small property. There weren’t many flowers, but the canopy, the foliage beckoned birds, butterflies and passers-by. And they gave her solace. When the rest of the village went ‘bald’, with people sacrificing the flora for constructing houses to sell for profit, Sheena’s Home stood out; so much so, that even upmarket foreign charter-representatives began patronizing it.

Through the thin and then the thick, Romi had been there.

He used to go to the airport with the hotel representatives and entice backpackers or those who had no bookings anywhere to come to her hotel. Both she and Romi knew a smattering of Hindi and spoke Konkani-accented English, but quickly learnt workable French, Portuguese, Finnish and some Arabic dialects. Gujarati, Tamil and Assamese, too. Within the first year of opening Sheena’s Home, Romi sold his motor-cycle-taxi (locally called ‘pilot’) and bought a second-hand cab. Two years later, he bought another one; he now owned four taxis and employed drivers. As was the norm in Goa, his taxis didn’t have meters and he charged two-way fares at rates that depended on how rich the passengers looked and how hard they could bargain. Besides, he earned well through ‘commissions’: Rs 200 per booking in any hotel. For every customer that he took to certain souvenir shops, he got 50 bucks; if the customer bought something, 25 more. Tax-free income. He owed his success to her.

Most of the villagers were in awe of her. When they made losses, she stood out, she did well.

“Plain lucky,” some said in mild envy.

“Who knows what rubbish she’s involved in,” said others, openly hostile, hinting that she might be dealing in drugs or prostitution.

Romi snapped at them: “She’s clean.”  

“How, then, does she do well even in the lean season?” they’d ask.

Was it clever thinking and perseverance? Mai and she believed, very strongly, that it was the trees that brought them luck, that their husbands’ ancestors’ souls reposed in them.  A lot of people slogged sincerely, as much as those who worked in Sheena’s Home, but few were as successful. Mai and she shook their heads and laughed when people asked them which deity they prayed to: “We pray to the land we live on, it has given us so much. These trees, this soil, are our wealth.”  

*

Through the 1990s and into the new millennium tourism flourished in Goa.

Her daughters moved from primary to secondary school to college. They began to wear gold chains and bangles, and shopped at The Mall.

Garbage became a problem.

Traffic routinely blocked Chogm Road.

Competition got fierce and ugly.

She feared none of it. Her advertisement was by word of mouth, her advantage the location of Sheena’s Home and her rock, Mai. And Romi. Her future seemed secure. Until that fateful morning.

She looked up at Romi-taxicar and in a tone that was simultaneously sad and stern, said: “You are hiding something from me. That’s new. You won’t talk? I’ll find out anyway, if not now, some other time. Go.”

She deliberately turned away from him and mechanically tidied items on the cloth-covered plastic table before her: a framed collage of several gods and saints, a pen-holder, a steel tumbler with a fitting lid, and three clumsily balanced piles of papers, files, books and ledgers. She adjusted her chair for comfort and put on her spectacles.

Her laptop sat on a hand-crotchet lace mat. She carefully raised the screen, wiped it with an old t-shirt. She turned it on, acutely aware that Romi-taxicar was still there, watching her intently. She ignored him and clicked the mouse to check her email.

The inbox had at least a hundred mails -- from vendors, soft copies of bills, queries about bookings, in-advance Christmas wishes, forwards from acquaintances … and one from her elder daughter.

She opened it first.  

For the last month or so, both the girls had been cold to her and Mai. Whenever they did speak, it ended in bickering. The girls wanted to take over Sheena’s Home, whilst the elder women had been insisting, they take up decent jobs somewhere and better their lives.

The email had both girls’ names at the bottom, with digital signatures. She felt Romi’s eyes on her as she silently read: “We have started legal proceedings to get our share of our ancestral property. We have already negotiated with M/s Konkan Builders regarding its future use. To begin with, our part of the compound will be converted into a parking lot.”

She stared at the email message on her computer, her mind racing so fast that the words blurred together and no longer made any sense. Just three lines, but enough to make her life -- the life she’d worked so hard and sacrificed so much to build -- begin to crumble around her.

She read the mail over and over again. She felt clammy and sick. Long years of discipline, hard work, of dealing with difficult situations, difficult customers, difficult husband, of frugal living, patiently waiting for rewards … what was she to do?

Though in turmoil within, her voice was steady, and the words were measured when she swivelled round, and said to Romi-taxicar: “The parking-lot is your idea, isn’t it? You wanted me to cut the trees and cement the place. You have told me many times that there is money to be made by offering parking-space here. You will employ drivers, give tourists a valet-service. Mai and I have not agreed to it. As for my girls, they want easy money. They want to live off rent. Worst of all, they, like you, have no consideration for the trees. It is because of the trees that the people come here. They are grand, majestic, rare, good for business. Sheena’s Home has prospered because of them. Those trees were here before us. Mai and I have made sure we looked after them for our grandchildren to enjoy. You have sent my guests elsewhere so you could squeeze my business dry. Romi, GET OUT.”

That night, Mai calmed her down: “You aren’t getting any younger. As for me, I’ll go into the sunset before you. The girls will inherit all of this in any case. Divide the property immediately, let each have her share. We can do what we want with ours, let them do what they want with theirs. They must learn their own lessons, as we learnt ours. Perhaps by then the trees will be gone and it’ll be too late. Que sera, sera.”

She felt as if a doctor had diagnosed her with organ failure when there had been no warning symptoms; as if an earthquake had rendered her homeless and orphaned, unwarned.

For hours she sat near Mai, head bowed, heart-broken. Finally, in tears, she whispered: “You are right. I must do the right thing.”

In response to the email, she sent them her lawyer’s legal notice advising partitioning of the property. Her husband, in an alcoholic daze, had signed where she had pointed. Sheena’s Home was to go to the girls, Mai would get the house in which all could live, she and her husband would get the portion with the trees. It was a fair deal, everyone had agreed.

*

The business did not suffer whilst the paperwork was being done and the Court matters processed by the lawyers. The girls were inducted into the daily affairs of the business and Romi-taxicar continued to earn his commissions. She made it clear that she was preparing to hand over reins to her girls. Even Mai couldn’t believe she would, or could, do so without a struggle.

In a country where mothers-in-law are depicted as monsters, Mai was her companion, business partner and closest confidante. “It’s your naseeb,” people told her, “Your karma carried over from your last life.” The two worked in synchrony. Mai could instinctively read her intentions --- but this time she was foxed. This was unusual behaviour, handing over Sheena’s Home without a fight?

Perhaps, figured Mai, there was wisdom in what she was doing.

On the day the matter was to be presented in Court, and the final signatures put on the Deed of Partition, Mai thought she detected a suspicious glint in her daughter-in-law’s eye, but it vanished just as quickly … the two women kept no secrets between them, so Mai dispelled that thought.

Whilst in Court, Mai saw her daughter-in-law stepping out to take a phone-call and wondered whose it could be. Signatures over, they were now five owners of five parts of what was until then a single property. The girls hugged their mother and grandmother, happy at the turn of events.

They celebrated by having beer and lunch at a nearby hotel.

It was after sunset by the time they returned home.

And this is what they saw: the part of the property where the trees stood had been fenced off. Fairy-lights garlanded the branches. In the space between the trunks, portable eco-friendly cabins had been set up, with attached toilets. Foldable tables and chairs were neatly stacked in one corner. A wooden board with Fish-Feni-Fries etched on it stood at the entrance-gate, aglow with mellow-yellow light.

While the family was away for half the day attending to the matter in Court, the contractor she had employed had executed her order efficiently and in time.

Even when cornered, she had shown her mettle. Clearly, the new enterprise was a direct competitor to Sheena’s Home.

She told Mai in a low tone: “I had to do it. One can’t burp against thunder. The storm of change is here. We have to adjust, we have to win. Sheena’s Home must die. Fish-Feni-Fries is the new tomorrow. Mai, we will stick to our home-ground masalas, gaunthi eggs and chicken. Let instant noodles reign alongside them. I am unafraid. Our fresh mangoes, organic chickoos, home-grown guavas, sun-ripened pineapples and sweet bananas will get us customers, like they always have. A lot of people get into the catering business, but there’s always room at the top.”

Romi-taxicar just happened to pass by, his mouth agape in surprise.

“Bai,” he said to her, his voice and posture self-effacing again. “I have four guests tonight. They are willing to pay double-rates and all in advance for two nights. I had told them about Sheena’s Home, but this new place, they will be happy with it.”

“Thank you, Romi,” she said to him in the same tone that she used in the past. She had professionalism in her DNA. She did not turn away business, whatever her grudge against him. “You have got Fish-Feni-Fries its first guests.”

Later, she told Mai: “I had spoken to the previous guests, the ones who had cancelled the bookings, whom Romi had taken elsewhere. They wanted indoor-games and music programs. We didn’t have those. They wanted to do things throughout the day, not just eat good food. I have contacted people who will teach pottery and ballroom-dancing. Plus, we’ll have nature-trails through our trees. I may be getting old, as you say, but, health-permitting, I will continue to work until my last breath, Mai.”

The next time Romi-taxicar came, she gave him his commission as she always did, and told him: “Choose between Sheena’s Home and this.”

Romi said to her: “I will work for Sheena’s Home.” Her daughters, now her rivals, were giving him a higher commission.

On her own again, she began to market her product with a passion her children couldn’t match.

It’s been three years since this happened. Feni-Fish-Fries, better known as ‘Triple-F’, is today a flourishing hotel, in the list of the top 20 ‘must-have experiences’ off-the-beaten-track places.

Romi-taxicar regrets the day he switched sides, when her will, skill and gusto dragged Madam’s Fortune from Sheena’s Home to ‘Feni-Fish-Fries’.

Two old women proved that with zest, focus and courage, age was just a number, not a limit to begin a career afresh.

They brought to life Allama Iqbal’s words: “Khudi ko kar buland itna ke har taqdir se pehle, Khuda bande se khud pooche bata teri raza kya hai.”

They won.

And the trees still stand tall, proud, caring, sentinels of their heritage.


Sheela Jaywant is a humour columnist, travel-writer and some of her stories have won international prizes. Widely anthologised, her single-author anthologies include, Quilted: Stories of Middleclass India (2003) and The Liftman and Other Stories (2009).