Truth Bandits T. SHER SINGH
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
We were standing outside the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC, waiting for a bus. The day’s sessions for the local Spinning Wheel Film Festival had just finished, and we were heading off to a banquet hall for the evening’s festivities.
“It’s a simple bus-ride,“ we were told, “no more than 30 minutes and it’ll drop you right outside the door!”
There were a couple of dozen of us, tired and hungry, at the bus-stop. It had been a long day. I’d watched more than a dozen films, out of twice as many advertised on the program that were being screened that day … shorts and documentaries of various lengths, on a variety of subjects. Most were repeats for me, but they were still pleasurable. But fun can be tiring too.
And then, there’d been socializing … catching up with friends and acquaintances, and making new ones over lunch and coffee breaks.
I needed to give my legs a break. Fortunately, a bus turned up right on cue. It was darkling outside, and even dimmer inside, as we boarded the vehicle. It looked pretty full already, but I spotted an empty seat between three others, right behind the driver. I plunked into it.
The crowd continued to pour in, until the bus was loaded all the way to the front. No more standing room left either. I was glad I’d found a seat for myself.
The bus began to move. I looked around at the tired shadows looming over us. Three guys I knew from the day’s proceedings were still belting it away on the day’s politics. None of them were fans of George W., it was clear. Someone mentioned a fellow called “Barack Obama.” I’d heard the name, but wasn’t sure where. Sounded like he was a new sun on the horizon, according to one of them. A man to watch out for, once election talk got ratcheted up a bit, he said …
I felt like a sardine, packed tightly between two passengers. It made a more comfortable ride, no swaying or rocking as the bus banked on a turn.
I heard a few muffled words to my left. “Sorry,” I said, as I bent my head towards my neighbour.
His whisper was louder this time. It didn’t sound right, what I thought I’d heard. He probably noticed the question mark on my forehead, because he repeated his words.
Yes, he’d said, “Sat Sri Akal, Sardar ji.”
I turned towards him, the few inches that I could. It was an elderly man, bundled with age, both his hands resting on a walking stick perched on the floor between his knees. I could barely discern his facial features, but I could see a whole criss-cross of lines and shadows. He was old, very old. A light gray suit, with a light tie to match, against a dark patch of shirt behind it. A light-coloured fedora sat on his lap.
So American, I said to myself.
“Sat Sri Akal!” I said to him. He didn’t say more. I guessed he was waiting for me to pop the obvious question. I obliged.
“You been to India?”
“Yes,” he said, “lots of times.”
I leaned my left ear to him closer. “I lived there for a while too, off and on,” he added.
“During the war?” I asked politely. I knew I was on safe ground. He looked o-l-d!
“Yes, that too. And on business later.”
It begged a question. “What business are you in?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m a journalist. Was one, I should say.” I could feel him rumble a light laugh.
“Is that what took you to India?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“And that’s where you met Sikhs, I guess?” It was always the same, this back and forth. I was too tired to turn it into a more serious conversation. So I continued the exchange with the usual banter.
“Oh, I got to know quite a few Sikhs when I was in Delhi.”
The bus rumbled along through the darkness. Its payload was getting quieter by the minute, as it took us closer to our destinations.
Our conversation had petered off, betwixt my neighbour and I. Just to be polite, I tried to revive it a bit with some more small talk,
“You said you were a journalist. For a newspaper? Or TV, radio …?”
“Print, mostly,” he said.
“Who did you write for?”
“Oh, for the Post, mostly. And a few others. Did a lot of freelancing as well.”
“The Post,” I asked. “The Washington Post?”
“Yes,“ he said. “And I did a lot of stuff for the Indian government too.”
I could see he was trying to impress me. I kept quiet. He continued.
“I know the people in the Indian embassy here in DC. I’ve worked on a bunch of projects for them. I get along famously with them. Lots of friends I have there … I still get invited to their parties, you know!”
Hm-m-m-m, I thought. That’s interesting. If he’s been around here in this city for a while, and in the media too, maybe he can help me. I looked at him: yes, he’s old enough, he might know something.
I snuggled a little closer to him. “You know, I’m not sure if you were in Washington then, or ever came across this name. But I once knew a chap at the Washington Post and have been looking for him for years now. I’m trying to remember his name … it’s … it’s … it’ll come to me in a sec …”
I dug deep into the recesses of my mind. How could I possibly forget the man’s name? I’d been looking for him for more than two decades now, and had only recently given up on ever tracking him down.
I struggled for a minute or so, and then gave up. “Doesn’t matter. He probably moved away. Or may be long gone, dead even, who knows …” I muttered.
“He worked for the Post? I would know of him. You don’t remember a name?”
“I’m trying,” I moaned, “but it’s escaping me now. You can never get a name when you want it, can you?” He nodded.
I let it go, and looked around. Waved at a couple in the back; they were hanging on to the straps on the bar above, bouncing along sleepily with the bus‘ rhythm.
“I got it!” I suddenly exclaimed. “I remember his name!”
“Who?” he said.
“I think it was Una. With a double ’n’. U-N-N-A. Walter Unna, I think it was.”
I looked at him, but couldn’t see much of his face as we were going through an unlighted area. But I could see him looking at me questioningly.
“Oh, you wouldn’t know him … it was so long ago. I met him, oh, way back in … 1984, I think it was. No, maybe 1985.”
Seeing there was no response from him, I spluttered along. “Not to worry … I met him briefly, not here but in Canada. I think he’d said he used to work for the Post. But my memory could be failing me. And then, who knows, maybe he moved away. Or died, or something.”
I tried to wrap up my query. He must think I’m being silly, I thought. He’s been to India, he’s probably been asked this all the time. He must think I’m another one of those idiots … It was like people in India asking me, knowing I lived in Toronto, Canada, if I’d met their relative who also lived in Canada … in Vancouver!
“Sorry, don’t worry. I know you couldn’t possibly …”
He put his hand on my arm. “W-a-l-t-e-r Unna?” He asked. A street light flashed by and I could see he was struggling with the name.
“Yeah,” I said. I’m pretty sure it was ’Walter’. Why, did you know another Unna? Maybe it was a relative or something. Do you remember anything about the time? I so badly want to get hold of him.”
His hand had gripped me a little tighter. I could feel he was looking at me intently, searching, as if, for more clues.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s been a long time now …”
“No, no, no. Wait,” he said, raising his voice. “MY name’s Unna.”
I burst into a guffaw. Heads turned and stared at us.
“You’re an Unna? Wha'd’ya know! What a small world! Well, did you ever know a Walter? A relative? A distant relative maybe?”
I was shaking my head. Strange world we lived in!
“You knew … er … Walter?” he asked, disbelievingly.
“Yes, I did. That’s who I’m looking for … Walter Unna. Did you really know Walter?“
His hand tightened around my arm, though I could see he was not very strong.
“I’m … Walter Unna,” he said, still staring at me.
“”What! You’re Walter Unna? It can‘t be … you … you … he couldn‘t … you couldn‘t be the same …”
“Im actually Warren Unna. W-A-R-R-E-N Unna.”
“Oh,” I said. I though you said you were Walter! Sorry.”
“No, no, I’m Walter Unna too, My middle name is Walter, but I go by the name Warren. Everybody knows me only as Warren Unna.”
I looked at him, wondering if he was pulling my leg.
He looked puzzled too.
“But, but,“ he stammered, “No one knows me as ’Walter’. I don’t understand why you keep on saying Walter.“
“And you used to work for the Washington Post?
“Yes, I did!”
“Was there another Unna there you’ve ever heard of?”
“No, never heard of one. I’m the only Unna in the city. Always have been, except my own family.”
I searched his face for clues.
“Were you ever in Toronto around 1984 or so?”
“Yes, I was …” his voice drifted off.
“Were you staying at the Holiday Inn … next to the City Hall …?”
I felt his body stiffen.
“You are Walter Unna, aren’t you? The man I’m looking for …” I was holding his arm now, barely able to resist shaking him. I was excited and sounded it.
A couple of people standing next to us, having overhead the conversation, began to clap.
His face hardened. He wasn’t smiling.
Nor was I.
“You’re alive?” I said
CONTINUED TOMORROW …
Conversation about this article
1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), October 23, 2012, 8:26 AM.
Once again, on painful tenterhooks! No matter if he was Walter or Warren.
2: Chintan Singh (San Jose, California, USA), October 23, 2012, 12:30 PM.
Can't wait for tomorrow. Please do not delay Part II, more than tomorrow!
3: Kanwarjeet Singh (Franklin Park, New Jersey, USA), October 24, 2012, 10:29 AM.
Sher Singh ji - where did you learn to write? I was getting goose bumps at an increasing rate as I kept reading. What an amazing art you have been blessed with! I look forward to the next part - hopefully the last one as any more suspense might have me call the medic.
4: Charandeep Singh (Chandigarh, Punjab), October 24, 2012, 12:01 PM.
5: Sarjit Kaur (Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.), October 24, 2012, 12:05 PM.
Emotional article, tinged with good humor ... Thanks, T Sher Singh jio :)
6: Kulwant Singh (U.S.A.), October 24, 2012, 1:36 PM.
Wow, Sher ji ... brilliant writing. I can picture the story in my mind so vividly!