As the holiday season sets in, I loll in my chair, my heart warming at a recollection of many years back, an instance of having received beneficence from a complete stranger on a lonely road.
Somewhat like the biblical reference of the Good Samaritan, helping hands stretched out to our aid, when my family and I were stranded in one of the most deserted stretches of India.
It was about 25 winters ago, and I was but a child bubbling with enthusiasm to travel across Rajasthan, far way from the monotonous regimen of school, discipline and studies.
We were traveling from the remote Suratgarh defence station towards Bikaner. The undulating brown landscape was stark and lifeless. Not a spot of green or a merry flower could be imagined in the sand mounds that surrounded us.
There were some jaded and thorny shrubs breaking the effortlessness of the dunes. The more grisly scene was of the strewn carcasses of some animals. I still remember vividly how the paling bones and skulls, of what would have been lively animals, told a tale of want, thirst and torrid sun.
Not often traversed, the road stretched right from close to the India-Pakistan border to the interior of the touristy state. We were all bundled in an Ambassador with my father at the wheel.
For once, in this overcrowded land of ours, we seemed to be the only inhabitants speeding away. It was the onset of what we imagined would be a fun trip.
Till….strut tut tut…tu..t.
The car went dead. Probably it was too hot in the day time. Those were the times when radiators needed water intermittently. Up came the bonnet and also the steam. The engine was burning hot. We splashed it with water and filled up the radiator afresh. But all efforts to revive the vehicle came to a naught. Pushing, tugging, accelerating, just nothing seemed to work. It would come to life for a bit and shut down again.
So, we were in the middle of nowhere, in a late afternoon and in an age when there were no cell phones. My father was especially in a predicament. Two kids, wife and my grandma in tow and not a workshop in sight. For miles, we had not encountered a passer-by.
Suddenly dad remembered that we had crossed an unmetaled straggling lane not too far back. He had just given a casual glance at the curving path, while driving past.
That track may be leading to village? It was worth taking a chance.
As my father set off on foot, we stayed back hoping to wave for help if someone came by this way. We hoped against hope, but were completely out of luck.
Meanwhile, the stillness of the searing afternoon was becoming difficult to bear. The sun rays were stabbing, the road scorching and the sand absolutely roasted. Sapped of all energy I retreated into the car even though it felt like an oven. Drinking water supply was low and everyone was tense and getting tetchy.
The monotony was only broken by waves of slapping hot wind, which filled our eyes and clothes with fine granules.
Finally, after what seemed like eternity, I first saw the Good Samaritan, walking along my father. He seemed to have risen from the topography. His deeply tanned skin, his leathered lips, hollow dark eyes and faded traditional apparels gave away his harsh living conditions.
His keen smile, in contrast, spoke of his large and willing heart. His presence itself comforted us. Through a thousand stutters of the car, we finally reached his abode. It seemed to have dropped straight out of some long lost history book.
“Wow…what’s this?” I questioned. “Yeh bahut purani sarai hai, beta (It’s a very old rest house, child),” he answered, amused at my curiosity.
I had never seen such a curious looking antique bungalow in such sprawling vicinity. It stood alone. The paint was peeling off its pale aged walls in some parts, which revealed old narrow bricks beneath.
There was no village. No other people. He seemed to be living alone.
He lay out rope-cots in the verandahs. The rooms had been kept shut for so long that they were too unkempt to occupy.
Eagerly we downed cool glasses of water he handed to us and nibbled at some snacks that we packed with us.
Then the man disappeared on a bicycle. He was going to a hamlet, a few miles away, to fetch supplies for our dinner.
I set off exploring the locale. The rooms were very large and cool with very high ceilings, from which hung hand pulled cloth fans. I tugged at the ropes, only to be showered by flecks of dust. Though spartan, there was also carved wooden furniture you see in period films.
The bathrooms had old toilet facilities and the bathing areas needed a serious scrubbing. But this was no mirage. The Sarai was a real lifeline thrown at us. It was government property and its keeper, our Good Samaritan, belonged to another village, where his family stayed.
There were some vines, which grew on the boundary walls and a mudded backyard, in which grew a few plants. In one corner was a small cottage, which the Samaritan seemed to inhabit.
Before long, the Samaritan was back with a basketful of provisions. He cooked the most savoury lentil and rotis with a potato vegetable. He also smashed some raw onions with his fists as an accompaniment. There couldn’t have been humbler victuals, but to me it seemed like a kingly spread. On a hungry stomach, it was one of most delicious meals I have ever had.
The idea of sleeping on cots outdoors was most exciting, but I was too exhausted to relish the moment, and was soon in deep slumber. A tickle of dew and strange sound of cawing woke me. As I rubbed my eyes open, I couldn’t believe what I saw. Where had all the peacocks come from? They were walking about freely, spreading out their beautiful feathers.
After ablutions, a bath from water drawn from the well, and breakfast of plain salt paranthas, the Samaritan promised to bring along someone who could help fix the car. By noon he was back, but what a sight it was. With him was a man sitting awkwardly on a camel cart! The lubberly looking fellow was actually a skilled mechanic and got the obstinate automobile running in no time.
As we were about to leave, my father sought to clear the bill. Our Good Samaritan just refused to take a penny. His eyes welled up. It was after many years that there had been guests at this obscure Sarai. This was his profession, and it was his pleasure that we had proffered him a chance to provide service. Clearly, indigence did not mean poverty of generosity.
My grandmother stepped in and in typical Indian style, recompensed him in the name of buying gifts for his children.
Happily, we packed in and waved him good bye. Had it not been for his intervention, we would have been handed to unknown and probably deadly fate. As our car slowly trundled off… standing in the penumbra of a desolate and forgotten region, the Sarai and our Good Samaritan were soon reduced to indistinct spots.
The parable of the Good Samaritan, as mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, illustrates the need to follow in spirit than letters the teachings of universal brotherhood and human kindness.
The story goes that once a man attacked by bandits was left for the dead on a road. Neither the priest nor the temple assistant helped him, though they passed him by and saw his despicable condition. It was a despised Samaritan, who felt compassion for the abandoned soul, and who nursed his wounds and took him to an inn on his donkey, thus saving his life.
Thinking back about our episode in Rajasthan, this story rings truer than ever. After all you never know where and in which garb you may encounter the spirit of Christmas.