18 August 2012

Zambia: Valuable Lesson From Delhi


Have you ever been threatened with a beating while having fun on the dance floor and, as if this were not enough, being asked to wash plates in a hotel kitchen for unplanned or unintentional failure to pay the entrance fee into a disco? Read on and hear what Simon Mwale and his close friend went through.

Some time in 1981, my former employers, Times of Zambia, informed me that I'd been awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship for further studies in journalism tenable at the Indian Institute of Mass Communications in New Delhi, India.

I flew from Lusaka International Airport, now Kenneth Kaunda International Airport, to New Delhi, via Dar-es-Salaam and Bombay, since renamed Mumbai. We made a stop-over at Dar-es-Salaam International Airport and were joined by other passengers who were also either Bombay or New Delhi-bound.

I sat on the right side of the plane and, diametrically opposite me, sat a light-complexioned, bespectacled gentleman, of heavy build and in a cream Safari suit.

I noticed that each time our eyes met, we would regard each other for several seconds in some sort of strange way.

At Bombay International Airport, as fate would have it, I noticed that each time our eyes met, we would again regard each other for several seconds in some sort of strange way.

Finally, we decided to greet each other, though I can't now remember who made the first move.

However, it turned out that the gentleman from Tanzania was, like me, headed for the Indian Institute of Mass Communications.

His name was Brown Lenga (may his soul rest in peace; he died a few years after returning from India).

Before leaving Lusaka, I'd taken the required yellow fever vaccination whose maturity is 10 days.

I was, however, quarantined at Delhi International Airport for five days before I could join my classmates at the Indian Institute of Mass Communications, because my vaccination needed five more days to mature.

At that time, the Institute did not have official accommodation for foreign students. Part of the scholarship I was privileged to win covered accommodation by way of rentals to the well-heeled landlords in South Extension of New Delhi where most of us found accommodation.

I lived in South Extension Part II and as we interacted over a period of time, Brown and I became the closest of friends and became almost inseparable. literally.

We would share meals, adventures and all, including occasionally going to all sorts of places like Haryana State near Delhi where, like others, we would smuggle beer on what are called 'dry days'( when no alcohol is sold).

We socialised frequently without encountering any trouble. Until one fateful night.

As often happened, Brown would come to my place or I would cross over to his and after linking up we would set off for our favourite joint, Rajdoot Disco, in the heart of New Delhi.

We spent a good chunk of our allowances on drinks at Rajdoot and got to the floor most of the time.

We did not know that the source of our troubles that night would be the two Indian girls who danced with us.

Danced with us is, actually, a classic understatement.

The girls wildly clutched our waists unrestrained as we joined them in equal measure, wriggling our bodies with joyous abandon to the great disco and rave hits of the day, including 'funky town.'

Suddenly, we heard the cracking sound of breaking bottles from a table a few metres away from where we were having unrestrained fun with our crazy feminine gender hosts.

A man approached us, Brown and me, and told us: "Do you know what is happening?" How could we know, all we knew was the sound of bottles being broken.

"Please tell us," we said, almost in unison. "The man over there is not happy to see you embracing and dancing with those Indian girls.

I'd therefore advise you to leave this place immediately!" We tried to resist by asking what would happen if we chose to stay since, as far as we were concerned, we had not committed any offence against anyone.

In any case, what, really, was the problem in a cosmopolitan city for black men to dance with Indian girls?

Our advisor insisted that it would be imprudent and foolhardy of us to insist on staying on because the next thing that could follow would be physical violence from the agitated Indian man.

We then decided to obey and beat a hasty retreat in peace.

Discretion was the better part of valour under the circumstances, we reasoned.

Little did we know more trouble lay in store for us ahead.

Rajdoot Disco was not far from our next destination, a beautiful hotel whose name I can't remember now.

It's within walking distance and Brown and I decided to find out what the hotel offered in terms of entertainment.

Our intention was really not to go for dancing this time because our stint at the previous venue, a hostile place, had left a deep hole in our pockets. All we wanted was to have a feel of this new place which we had never been to before.

At the hotel, we asked for the disco house and we were directed to the reception desk, manned by a cool gentleman. Or so we thought!

We informed the man that we just wanted to see what was happening inside, that we wouldn't spend more than five minutes and he let us in. Our troubles were just beginning to unfold.

As promised, we left the disco house after about three minutes with the intention of heading back to our base in South Extension.

Believe it or not, the receptionist asked us to pay the entrance fee!

We said: "What?" He intoned: "You must pay the entrance fee because you have entered our premises."

This led to a long argument which attracted several hotel staff who had by now gathered and ganged up against us.

Our explanation that we did not carry enough money and hence the advance notice to the receptionist about our financial status, did not wash up with them and they insisted that we pay.

After the screaming match between us and our 'guests', someone who appeared to be a senior official proposed what seemed a crazy idea to Brown and me.

He said since you don't have the money to pay the entrance fee, come with us. It was getting more intriguing.

This alarmed us, especially my friend, Brown who was bigger in stature than me (my waist line then was 29 inches and it's now 36 inches) and who became an early victim of this group who descended and rained punches.

Brown said to me: "Simon, these people will kill us." And he put up a fierce struggle, which yielded no results.

I was struck on the back of my neck, but the real beating was reserved for my friend, for whom I felt very sorry, but hapless as I was, there was nothing I could do.

My small size was what spared me the kind of beating my friend received.

Meanwhile, we had started the walk to an unknown destination, but finally, we ended up in a kitchen.

There, we were informed that our 'sin' would be forgiven if we washed plates.

Brown and I told our captors that cleaning plates was below our dignity even though we were broke.

After much arguing and counter arguments, we resolved the matter by agreeing to leave an item of value, go to our base and find the money and then come back the following day to reclaim the item left behind.

We went back to the hotel the following day with the entrance fee, about Rs 40 and reclaimed our surety, my friend's wrist watch, which we'd left behind.

From that day I learnt not to take anything for granted.

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