Short story collection

Dr Einstein, I presume

“Can’t imagine that this is the last time I’ll do this here,” Raghavan  Nair sighed and remarked to David Levy, the lanky English teacher who shared the long hard rosewood desk with him.

Raghavan had just finished marking the last examination script on that Friday afternoon and placed it neatly on the large pile of scripts.  The assistant mathematics teacher tied the scripts into a neat bundle before locking them away safely in the large wooden cupboard at the side of the teacher’s common room. He was elated that his whole class of  at Anglo Chinese Free School had passed the algebra/geometry paper.  This would mean that they should get good results in mathematics for the Junior Cambridge Examinations in the following year. A few of them would also make it to the Senior Cambridge Examinations.  He was gratified to have given them a sound foundation in the subject. If this was his going-away present, then he took it as a good omen for his future.

“Lecturing at the University should be easier, Raghu” said David.

“The Madras Presidency College is not yet a university, although they are aspiring to be one. I’ ll only be a tutor. They should also let me continue the studies where I left off seven years ago . That is what Mr Roberts has asked for me,  ” replied Raghu.

“Has the headmaster so much influence?”

“He and the Vice-Principal of the College used to teach together in Bombay,” said Raghu

“That’s good. All colleges want to be universities and they need money. A professor from Germany is coming here to make a collection for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem,” said David, waving a handwritten note on a yellow sheet of paper in front of him.

“This professor must have a lot of free time,” said Raghu.

“He’ll have to depend on the Meyers and Montors and not on David Levy for his collection,” said David. The Meyers and Montors were the famous Jewish families of the day.

“Who’s the professor?”

“ A Dr Einstein,” said David.

“Albert Einstein? “ Raghu could not believe his ears.

“Yes. He’s on his way to Tokyo for some lectures. Why?” asked David

“ Dr Einstein is the most famous scientist who ever lived,” said Raghu.

“ I didn’t know that,” David handed him a piece of paper, “I picked it up at the Chesed-El Synagogue.”

Raghu lapped up the neatly handwritten notice voraciously. It made some mention of the scientific achievements of Dr Einstein which Raghu felt did not do justice to the great man.  If Raghu could somehow meet this famous scientist and get an autograph, it would give him a boost when he started his new tutorship at the Madras Presidency College. How grand would it be to tell his  colleagues about such a meeting with Dr Einstein.

“ There’s no mention of a public lecture,” Raghu said with disappointment. All visiting dignitaries gave public lectures.

“It’s no more the fashion, but Mr Meyer has invited the Singapore community to meet Dr Einstein at his residence at Belle Vue in Oxley Road.  ” David said pointing to the notice.

“How do I meet him?”

“You want to meet him?” asked David.

“Of course,” said Raghu.

Before leaving the room ,David Levy agreed very gallantly to take Raghu along with him to Mr Meyer’s house to meet Dr Einstein. The local Jewish community was always welcome at Belle Vue.  Raghu was ecstatic. He could picture himself having a few words with Dr Einstein about how much he admired him. He must choose his words correctly and rehearse them. Then he would ask for Dr Einstein’s autograph.

How fortunate that he had been keeping abreast with all the goings-on in the scientific community. Otherwise, he would never have known so much about Dr Einstein. He had to thank the Headmaster of Anglo Chinese Free School, Mr John Roberts for his magnanimous gesture of sharing  scientific journals and magazines that he subscribed to, with his own money with his teaching staff.

Raghu brought out his large desk diary from his leather bag and noted meticulously the important date of Dr Einstein’s visit ,which was three weeks’ away, but as he flipped the pages, a troubled look appeared on his face. In his excitement, he had completely forgotten that he was to leave for good to Madras by steamer a week before the visit. His cousin Achuthan  (Achu) had already booked the tickets for both of them. He had given notice of resignation to the Headmaster . Since the steamers did not ply frequently between Singapore and Madras, postponing the trip would mean one or two more months’ additional stay without a job. This would cut deeply into the savings that he had accumulated over the past seven years.

He was tempted to forget about the whole episode and run after David Levy to apologise. He hesitated. Would he ever get a chance again to meet Dr Einstein again? What thrilled him even more was the chance to use this meeting as a testimonial to carry him further in his career. He remembered reading in the mathematics journal that a letter written by a humble Indian clerk to Professor Hardy of Cambridge University had propelled Srinivasan Ramanujan of Kumbakonam, Madras to become one of the leading mathematicians of the day. Of course, he could not compare himself to that genius Ramanujan, but who knew what could transpire from such a meeting, especially now that he was embarking on a future University career. Yes, he decided that it was worth the sacrifice.

It was getting late and the daylight was fading. All the other assistant teachers had left the school building. He put on his white drill coat over the white shirt and the white drill pants, the standard uniforms for all teachers and assistant teachers. It would be dark soon and the school and its surroundings at Telok Ayer Street had yet to be electrified. It was not very safe to be in the area after dark because of the presence of many opium dens and addicts. He decided to return on Monday to collect his belongings and clean out his desk. It was drizzling lightly when he left the thatched roof school building. He had not bothered to take his umbrella when he left for work because it was so sunny.  He had to brave the rain at the tram stop because there was no nearby shelter. He took the electric tram and got off at Kampong Glam and carried his portly frame home along the backlane, which was lit here and there by the candle light from the adjoining houses. The suit protected him from getting thoroughly wet.

Home was a “bachelor’s mess” in a rented two storey house with part atap roof and part Chinese-riled roof next to Rochor River where five Indian bachelors, including Raghu and his cousin Achu had set up house and employed an Indian cook for preparing their meals and oing the other odd jobs such as cleaning the quarters.
A money lender Perumal Chettiar owned the premises. It was conveniently located in the heart of the Indian quarters of the colony, it was within walking distance to the tramline , there were a couple of public water standpipes for drawing fresh water and there was daily collection of night soil by the Chinese coolies. Raghu had a soft spot for these unfortunates, who made a living by collecting and disposing of human faeces. Many of the residents shunned them, but he always had a kind word, a piece of fruit or a biscuit whenever he chanced to meet them on on his rounds at his house and a fat monetary tip during the Chinese New Year Season. Every fortnight, the Rural Board sent a worker to spray oil and chemicals on any pool of standing water to prevent the breeding of mosquitoes which spread malaria.

He was greeted by unusually busy activities along the banks of the Rochor canal.  The residents were celebrating the coming of electric light to the area. When the electric light came to the European quarters in Tanglin, it was rumoured that Rochor would be the next in line, but it had taken three years. He spotted his neighbours ceremoniously throwing bundles of candles  and kerosene lamps into the muddy canal. He would not be that hasty, he thought.

At the bachelor’s mess, he found his room mates in a jolly mood after a hefty rice and fried chicken meal laced with cheap beer bought from the British army mess. One of his roommates worked as a store clerk at the Naval Base and had convenient access to cheap alcohol. Nobody was in a mood to engage in serious talk, least of all his cousin Achu. Two years his junior, the two of them had grown up together in the village in Cochin India, with Raghu being the studious type and Achu the athletic type. Even now, Raghu envied the well-sculpted body of his cousin, who fitted very easily as a constable in the fledgling Police Force of the colony. The cousins had been close, but the family feud had set them apart and they lived together in the same mess only as a matter of convenience.

It was only by accident that he had met his cousin in Singapore. Although he left India, Raghu kept in touch with the goings-on in Cochin, his native state  and its language Malayalam. He subscribed to Malayalam weeklies from Majid Rowther , the owner of an Indian grocery shop, Zam Zam Store along the nearby Buffalo Road.  Majid’s grandfather had been an Indian convict who had been deported by the British to Singapore for undertaking public works in the mid-1850’s. After his release and the disbandment of the convict labour force, his grandfather had decided not to return to India, but to start family here with a Malay lady. Majid was proud of his lineage and used to boast that his grandfather was one of the masons involved in the construction of the Government House at Edinburgh Road, where the British Governor Lawrence Guillemard was living. Majid, part Malay and part Indian had a family in Cochin , but being a Muslim, he had also set up another family with a Bugis lady living in Kampong Glam. Majid had a thriving business and with his connections in India, Zam Zam Store supplied most of the needs of the South Indians  in Singapore, who worked mainly at the rattan factories, cattle sheds or pineapple farms around the Farrer Park area.  Among other things, Majid also brought in Tamil and Malayalam language newspapers through travelers who arrived from Madras. On one occasion when he went to Zam Zam collect his weeklies, Raghu met the newly arrived Achu, who had been recruited as a policeman. Despite Raghu’s protests, his house mates who were all from Cochin had taken in Achu as a boarder when a vacancy arose. Only of late, when there was a prospect of Raghu returning home after a self exile of seven years had the cousins started communicating with each other.

The next morning, Raghu called Achu aside and told him, “ I have to postpone my trip home.”


“Dr Albert Einstein’s coming here during that period.”

”Who’s he?” asked Achu.

“The world’s most famous scientist and I want to meet him,” said Raghu.

“You think he wants to meet you?”

“No, that’s not what I mean . My friend will take me to meet him,” said Raghu.

“You said that you wanted to go home, meet the family that you left so long ago, look for a bride and even a job at Madras College. Now you want to give up all this so that you can meet this scientist, ” said Achu, twirling his moustache.

“ Yes, I want to do all that after meeting Dr Einstein.”

“Do you know how much trouble I took to get these steamer tickets? I had to ask Inspector Jeffreys to talk to his friend at the British India SN Company to give us priority, “said Achu.

“Well, I am sorry. I can find a buyer for the ticket. You need not worry,” said Raghu.

“You’ll be disappointing Madhu mama, your mother and my mother. They are eager to welcome you back. In fact, my mother has even found a suitable bride for you.”

His uncle , Madhu mama eager to welcome him back- indeed! Does a leopard change his spots?

“ I’m not looking forward to meeting Madhu mama,” said Raghu.

Raghu recalled that as a child in his native state, his grandmother used to sit him on her lap every evening to recite prayers in front of a large lamp with a burning wick in front of the picture of the family deity, Lord Muruga and tell stories from Hindu mythology. He always remembered Dushhasana from the epic Mahabarata as the wickedest evil man he had come across. As he grew up, he came to believe that Madhu mama, his uncle was Dushhasana reincarnated to this world.

“Why are you so hard on him? He also treated me badly. That’s why I came here, but I bear no grudges, ” said Achu.

How could Raghu not bear grudges? The mention of his uncle brought about the rage that he had managed to control for the past few years. In the matrilineal system in a small village in Cochin, his maternal uncle Madhavan Nair was a despot who ruled the house with an iron fist. The Nair family owned a large piece of land with a huge house (tharavad) in the centre surrounded by padi fields which they leased out to small farmers or vassals  in return for a yield of the rice. Madhavan’s two younger sisters, the mothers of Raghu and Achu seldom intervened  preferring to attend to matters in the kitchen and leaving all the disciplining to Madhu mama. For the slightest provocation, he and his cousin Achu were beaten with a cane. In the matrilineal system, maternal uncles looked after the family. Madhu mama used to boast that he did not marry because he wanted to look after his sisters ‘sons. But it was common knowledge that Madhu mama had illicit relations with some servant girls.

Raghu had met his father a Kunjunni Nair only a few times. The father lived apart from them and looked after his own sister’s family, as required under the matrilineal system.

“I have seen and felt Madhu mama’s cruelty to us and to our servants,” said Raghu.

“He was only following the system,” said Achu.

Yes, Madhu mama was only following the caste system, but he reveled in it. He treated his servants and vassals as dirt. Raghu was especially sad to watch his uncle’s harsh treatment of their children with many of whom he spent his idle hours.

“No wonder Cochin will not progress,” said Raghu.

“Madhu mama did not start the system. It is still there,” said Achu.

Raghu vividly remembered one day when he had announced that a visiting Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda had compared Cochin to a lunatic asylum with its caste system, Madhu mama had slapped him. Until that day, he had disliked his uncle, from that day, he had hated him.

“As I said, meeting Dr Einstein is my priority now, not Madhu mama,” said Raghu

“What about your mother. Think of her. She is getting old and is worried sick about her only son. You left without even telling her,” said Achu.

His mother Amma – that was another story. At the school leaving examinations, he had been placed among the first few in the region and was asked to appear before a board to apply for a place at the Madras Presidency College. Madhu mama decreed that Raghu should leave school and take over the running of the rice fields, but Raghu was adamant that he would get a college education. When he returned home to announce his success, he met Amma returning from the temple, where she had gone to pray that he would not get entry into Madras Presidency college. He had been disgusted with the family.

“ It is not as if I will not  return,” Raghu said to Achu.

” Madhu mama is getting old. That’s why I am returning to look after our estate; of course you also have a share of the estate. My mother says that he now spends much time at the prayer altar,” said Achu.

”Evil men cannot be redeemed. He will not escape Lord Murugan’s wrath.”

“Don’t be hard on him. Like he said, leave the past behind.”

“It was he who drove me to Singapore. If not, I would have worked in Cochin after I graduated, “ said Raghu.

“You would never have been able to return if Madhu mama had not withdrawn the Police Report against you about the assault”.

“What assault? Who started it? And you of all the people sided with him,” Raghu sneered at him.

“That was a long time ago and I had no choice,” said Achu.

How could Raghu forget that day? Amma had pleaded with him to stay back with family,” I don’t know what danger awaits you in Madras. You’ll be safer here.”

“Madras is safer that this lunatic asylum,” he had said in the presence of Madhu mama.

“If you leave, we’ll cut you off any rights to the property of this family,’” Madhu mama had threatened.

“Don’t threaten me. You have no right to do that. I know the law better than you,” Raghu had shouted.

“Don’t argue with uncle. Listen to him,” Amma had pleaded.

“I’ll see that you get nothing,” Madhu mama had shouted .

“Neither will you be able to take anything when you go and rot in hell,” Raghu had shouted back.

Madhu mama had removed one of his sandals and thrown at him, hitting him on his shoulders. Raghu had picked it up and threw it back at his uncle hitting him on the face. Madhu mama staggered and fell down and the family who had been watching ran to his aid.

“What have you done?” Achu’s mother, his aunt had lamented.

“I have brought down an evil man,  ” Raghu had said.

“ I’ll see you suffer for this,” said Madhu mama and had ordered Achu and the servants to restrain Raghu.

Raghu had fought them off and left the Nair house in Cochin never to return. After that eventful day, he did not have any connections with his family or village. He had heard rumours later that Madhu mama who was an influential man had lodged a police report. He neither cared nor worried about the police report. All he knew that he could not go home without risking arrest.

Raghu had sold the gold chain that he wore around his waist handed down to him by his grandmother for a handsome profit. With that money, he set off for Madras on a 20 hour journey by rail . He spent one and half years in the science stream at the Presidency College supporting himself from the mathematics tuition he gave to children of wealthy parents. For the first month , he was very homesick and missed his mother and her cooking, but gradually got over it. He did not send a single letter to her during this period for fear of having Madhu mama track his whereabouts. This unfilial act had always haunted him.  He even used another name to register at the college to avoid being traced by Madhu mama.  At the onset of the First World War in 1914, things became more difficult and he found that most of the tuition opportunities started drying up. He could not afford to continue.

Fortunately it was at this time that he met his father’s brother Kesavan Nair (Kesuman) who was visiting Madras to recruit helpers for the Allison Rubber Estate in Kluang , Malaya, where he was a clerk. This kindly uncle arranged to get him a job in the rubber estate if Raghu could raise the money to get to Kluang.

It took Raghu about two months to accumulate the money by doing odd jobs at a clothes factory. After a long journey of ten days- as a deck passenger in a steamer from Madras to Singapore ,  by train from the Tank Road terminus to Woodlands, by ferry across the Johor Straits and finally by train from Johor Baru , Raghu arrived at Kluang, only to find that the vacant jobs had already been filled. He felt very bad at having to depend on Kesuman’s generosity for the next two months without finding a job.

Then a rumour started circulating that the construction of a new steel bridge across the Johor River near Kota Tinggi needed human heads for sacrifice and that the children of the Indian rubber tappers were being targetted by a gang. The parents refused to leave their children and would not come out for work, although the estate staff assured them that their children were in no danger.

With Mr Allison’s permission, Raghu assuaged the tappers  by organising some classes in teaching these children the basic Tamil alphabet and arithmetic during the hours when the parents were out tapping rubber. In return, the tappers got together to provide  him with two meals each day and he was happy that he did not have to scrounge from Kesuman, other than sharing his quarters.  Daily he used to go to the nearby shrine of Lord Muruga to seek his blessings to get  a job. After six months, when nothing better turned up,  Raghu was ready to give up and return to India.

His fortunes changed in 1916 when a vacancy for an assistant teacher in Anglo Chinese Free School  in Singapore came up. The British were looking for Indians and Ceylonese to teach English in schools because as colonial bureaucracy and European businesses expanded, there was a need for English-speaking clerical staff.   Headmasters and teachers posts were exclusively European, the others could only become assistant teachers. He was recruited immediately for teaching English , but when the Headmaster Mr Roberts found out that he had spent some time at the university studying mathematics, he asked him to teach mathematics.

That was seven years ago; Raghavan had grown tired of the lonely life in Singapore and the timely letter from Mr Roberts to the Vice-Principal of  Madras Presidency College with a possibility of a tutor’s job encouraged him to return. He intended to settle down in Madras, not with his family in Cochin. It was only after Achu showed him a letter from Madhu mama , that he had withdrawn the police report and would like to leave the past behind ,that he had decided to return to Cochin to see his mother, who he had left so many years ago without even bidding farewell.

Two weeks earlier, he had gone to Kluang to spend the weekend with Kesuman and to inform of his intended departure. It was then that he found out that Kesuman had left Cochin because he had mercilessly thrashed Vasu Thampuran, one of the members of the Cochin royal family when he came upon the Thampuran trying to rape a young girl in the padi fields. After that Kesuman could never return to Cochin again without risking arrest.

“Do you trust your cousin Achu?If you are fed up with your job,   I can speak to Mr Allison for a job here. You will not feel so lonely here.   ” Kesuman who had by that time been promoted as the Chief Clerk of the estate had said.

“What can a teacher do here?” Raghu had asked.

“Not much now, but the Johor English College will be looking for teachers because they are expanding.  Also  the new causeway across the Johor Straits will be completed by next year and FMS (Federated Malay States) trains will run between Tank Road station in Singapore and Kluang.”

Raghu had returned to Singapore from Kluang with a heavy heart; this was his only relative who had been kind to him. He might never see Kesuman again.

On Monday, Raghu left early to hand over the marked papers to the Headmaster Mr Roberts and to ask for an extension of two months of his job.  Just as he entered the school compound, he was accosted by Mohammed Zain, who was a class monitor.

”Good Morning  sir,” Zain said, “ Here is a post card written and signed by all of us. We could not complete it in time for your send-off party last week.”

Raghu muttered a word of thanks and opened the letter. All his fifteen students, nine Chinese, three Indians, two Eurasians and one Malay had signed- under a neatly hand written letter wishing him all the best for the future. The letter went on to thank him for all they had taught them. Yes, he had forgotten the send-off party at the Victoria Confectionary Store at Victoria Street that was held in his honour. It would now be embarrassing for him to continue teaching at the school. Nevertheless, he had to try to be employed for a couple of months more.

Mr Roberts was puzzled why it was so important for Raghu to meet Dr Einstein now. There will be other opportunities because the famous scientist would visit India one day.

“I have already recruited another mathematics teacher in your place, “the Headmaster said. He suggested that Raghu try at the YMCA who usually employed relief teachers.

Just as he was leaving the school with his belongings that he had cleared from his cupboard, Mohammed Zain ran after him and hailed him.

“Sir, Headmaster wants to see you,” he said.

Raghu anticipated that Mr Roberts would give him another temporary appointment for the next two months. This would set him up for the next two months. He entered the office full of hope.

“Raghu, when did you say you will be leaving for Madras now?” Mr Roberts asked.

“In December probably”

“The Vice-Principal of  the college Mr Laughlin is leaving India to Ireland for good in mid-November. You will not be able to catch him, if you go that late.”

Raghu was at a loss for words.

“I am not saying that you will not be able to get the tutor’s job at the Presidency College with your capability and experience in this fine school, which by the way will be named after its founder Mr Gan Eng Seng next year. But Mr Laughlin could help you,” Mr Roberts continued.

“Thank you. I could send your letter of recommendation to him through my cousin and say that I will be there only in December,” said Raghu.

“Yes, you could. Will it not be better if you see him in person?”

“Maybe, but I have already given up my ticket.” This was a lie, but Raghu did not want to be seen to be ignoring his advice.

Raghu had no luck at the YMCA. It had been a bad day without any success. He decided to stop at the roadside stall to treat himself to good tiffin of steaming rice and hot mutton curry washed down by diluted yoghurt. Feeling satiated, he headed for home for his afternoon nap.

In the midst of his nap, he was awakened by his housemate Rajan who came in with a stranger.

“Sorry to wake you up, this is Mr Matthai”, said Rajan, “he is the new tenant taking over your place . He wanted to see the house.”

“But….” started Raghu and stopped. Of course, he had totally forgotten that he had given notice to his housemates and he had not informed them about postponing his trip. He had also given notice to his washer man and the milk vendor.

After the visitor left the room, Raghu could not sleep any more. Where would he find a place to live for the next two months? Rented houses were hard to come by and he would now have to spend the next two weeks looking for one.

As he sat down and thought about what was happening, he wondered whether all the sacrifices he was making was worth the meeting with Dr Einstein. As to what would happen in the future , he did not want to think much about it. His delay in returning might cost him the coveted place at the College, which would be unfortunate. But that was the price that he was willing to pay to meet Dr Einstein. There would definitely be other colleges or schools where he would be able to find a job. Next in priority was marriage, he was thirty two now, but one or two month’s of delay did not worry him.

On the next morning, he headed for Zam Zam Store to see Majid Rowther.

“I have a one-way ticket to Madras to sell”, said Raghu.

“One-way tickets are difficult to sell.”

“You know anybody who is leaving for good,” asked Raghu. He knew that Majid was a shrewd man and was trying to take advantage of the situation.

“I could try, but the price will be lower than what you paid for the ticket. Also there will be some expenses for me to get the name changed,” said Majid.  Raghu accepted that he had to lose some money in the transaction.

“ Do you know any place that I can rent for a month?” he asked.

Majid was managing a one-room library of Malayalam books which was only a stone’s throw away from Zam Zam Store and behind the Pauper Hospital for Women and Children at Kandang Kerbau.   It  had Malayalam, English and Sanskrit books being financed by monthly subscriptions.

“If you donate your collection of books to the library, you could be the caretaker and sleep in the library room until you leave. Not too comfortable, but free,” said Majid.

This suited Raghu because he had no intention of taking back much of his seven-year book collection with him to Madras.  He moved to the library, a two-storey shophouse along the mud track facing the Serangoon Road Race Course within the next two days.  Many Europeans and some wealthy Chinese came to watch and bet on horse races at the race course on Sundays. Once or twice he was tempted to bet on the races, but decided against it.

The whole of the following week was spent looking for temporary job. His relationship with Achu had been strained, he could not understand why. Why should Achu make a big fuss over the issue? He might have to explain to the family why Raghu had postponed the trip, but for that if anyone was to be blamed, it would be Raghu. It was only after much coaxing and pleading that Achu agreed to deliver the letter to the Vice-Principal of Madras Presidency College on his way to Cochin.

Achu left two days before Dr Einstein arrived. He did so without even saying good bye and this hurt Raghu. When Raghu looked back, he realised how lonely his life had been over the past seven years. His existence was no more than going to teach, marking examination papers and the occasional get-togethers with other bachelors. Sundays were spent playing cards with friends or visiting the entertainment park “New World” at Jalan Besar.  There were certain Saturday evenings when he drank more than one bottle of beer and spent the time sleeping. He hardly saw any Indian ladies and if there were any , they were usually in purdah. He had no wish to form any liaison with ladies of other races, not because of any aversion but because of complications that could arise  . If even inter-caste marriages were frowned upon, what would inter-religious marriages be like in Cochin? He did not develop any strong friendships because most of the friends he made were transients from India, who had just come to amass some money and return home. Unlike home in Cochin, where there was a joint family with the regular festivals, temple visits, visits to relatives and so on, there was nothing that he could look forward to in this god-forsaken land. He was glad that he would be leaving this life behind.

On 30 th October 1922,  the Straits Times announced that Professor and Mrs Albert Einstein would arrive in Singapore on the morning of 2nd November by the Japanese Mail Ship Kitano Maru. Dr Einstein, well-known for his theories of relativity had been invited to deliver a series of lectures to scientists in Tokyo. His hosts in Singapore would be a Mr and Mrs A Montor, a diamond merchant. The Straits Times invited the Singapore community to meet Dr Einstein on the evening of November 2nd at the house of Sir Manasseh Meyer, a leading Jewish citizen of Singapore.

Raghu could not contain his excitement when he read this piece of news. He waited impatiently for November 2nd to arrive.

On the appointed date, Raghu decided to have a good lunch at his old bachelor’s mess for a small fee. As he was finishing his sumptuous meal on a large banana leaf , the cook mess Velu tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a letter.

“I found this in Achu’s room when I was cleaning it. Could you post it to him ?” Velu asked.

It was the letter addressed to the Vice-Principal of the Presidency College – Achu had left it behind. Raghu could not fathom whether it was a deliberate act or an accidental act. He decided to give Achu the benefit of the doubt. But, now he had blown his chances of a job at the College. He would have to post it now if he wanted the Vice Principal to see it before he left. This would take about 6 weeks and Mr Laughlin might have left by then.

He took a rickshaw from Rochor Road to Oxley Rise. The ride took almost an hour. When he reached Belle Vue, he could see some activity within, but there were no crowds on the dirt track outside. Obviously the general public knew very little about the great scientist. Belle Vue was like a palace, with Moorish architecture and situated on top of the hill. One or two chauffer driven cars came up and dropped passengers who went inside the premises. He had brought a cutting of the Straits Times invitation in case he needed it. It started raining and he took shelter on the veranda on one of the shop houses in the neighbourhood. He waited impatiently for David Levy for almost 45 minutes.  There would be a reception later in the evening and he had to get to meet the great man before that.

When an hour had passed, he gathered courage and approached the entrance. There was a young fair skinned boy at the gate, who was greeting visitors. Raghu showed him the Straits Times announcement and asked whether he could go in. The boy disappeared and returned within five minutes saying that he could.

He was led into a large banquet hall, where a band was playing some Viennese waltzes softly. The great man was sitting on a chair in the middle of the room dressed in a white coat with an ill-fitting tie. He had a straight moustache and curly hair which he had combed neatly. He was alone because the rest of the guests were conversing with each other and going to the large banquet tables to help themselves to drinks. Fools, Raghu said in his head- don’t you know the value of this man. Dr Einstein smiled at him as he approached.

Raghu was trembling with excitement and could not say anything. He prostrated himself in front of him, an Indian custom of obeisance that he had never accorded to anybody since he was a teenager; and for which he had earned  rebuke from his elders in Cochin. He did not believe that any of those who he knew deserved such respect. But for this great man- it was different.

When he looked up, Dr Einstein was smiling. Raghu was at loss of words.

“Good evening , sir,” was all he could say and offered his hand.

“Guten abend”, said Dr Einstein taking it and shaking it. All Raghu’s rehearsed speeches would now be useless because the great man spoke German, not English. How foolish of him not to have thought about that.

The congregation was getting up and it was apparent that they were adjourning for the reception. Someone approached Dr Einstein to invite him. Raghu brought out the newspaper cutting  and  made a sign with his hand as if to ask for an autograph. Dr Einstein took out his fountain pen from his coat pocket and signed next to his photo. Raghu folded his hands in a prayer like form to thank him. Dr Einstein was still smiling as he was leaving.

He had met the great man, shaken his hands and got his autograph. He was disappointed on how soon it had all been over. When he was leaving the house, a rickshaw stopped in front and out hopped David Levy.

“The floods, there are floods at Scotts Road. I’m sorry I’m late,” he apologised.

“Never mind, I met Professor Einstein, “beamed Raghu.

“I have to go in for the reception,” said David and left.

On his way home, Raghu  replayed the meeting in his head. He had met the great man, but how was he to know that Dr Einstein did not speak English? If only David Levy had turned up earlier, he would have had more time with him. What a big letdown?  But he had the autograph, but when he examined it, he realised that the ink had smudged on the cheap quality newspaper. But the signature was still legible. Was his great sacrifice worth the moments he spent with Dr Einstein? That night he recorded his meeting with Dr Einstein in his diary in great detail. The next day, he went to Serangoon Road to get the newspaper article framed.  The glazier only framed photos of gods and goddesses of various religions . Raghu had to convince the glazier that Einstein was a prophet before he agreed to frame his picture with the autograph.

On his way home, Raghu read this in the Straits Times.

It reported that at the previous night’s reception, Mr Montor who spoke in English had said that the Jewish community deemed it a high honour to receive Dr Einstein as one whose mind has soared beyond the range and placed him among men like Democritus, Galileo and Newton. Dr Einstein had responded in German with translations. He said that science was the property of all nations and was not endangered in any way by international strife for it always had a healing influence on those people who looked beyond the horizon.

The he had gone on to ask support for his cause from the Jewish Community for contributions to a University in Jerusalem.

Raghu cut out the article and pasted it in his diary. He wrote a letter to Achu about his meeting with Dr Einstein and that he intended to return in a month’s time. He was in two minds about asking about the well-being of  Madhu mama and the rest of the family. Finally he relented as a gesture of goodwill now that he was returning home. He had to heed Dr Einstein’s call- if the great man could talk about a healing influence, Raghu, as a fellow scientist was also prepared to end the family strife.

Feeling confident, he posted Mr Robert’s letter to the Vice Principal of Madras Presidency College giving his credentials, his past attendance at the College many years ago under an assumed name and asking for considerations of an appointment as a tutor.  He hoped that they would grant him an interview in Madras on his way to Cochin.

It was time to book a ticket in the steamer for his trip home. He went to Zam Zam Store to collect the money owed to him by Majid Rowther for his ticket. Majid was away on leave in India and would only return three weeks later. This meant a further delay for his departure.

Over the next three weeks, Raghu had to live extremely frugally, cutting down on all but the bare essentials. Fortunately, he had a roof over his head at the room in the library. He felt that he had to bring home most of the money that he had saved in order to start a new life rather than spend it freely. He did not know what the future held for him there, but he knew that his savings could make the future brighter. Once or twice, he was tempted to consult the Tamil astrologers and palmists who set up their shops daily along Kerbau Road to foretell his future, but decided that he would rather not know about the future.

Exactly three weeks later, Raghu appeared at the Zam Zam Store. It was Majid who was the first to speak, “ I have just returned from Cochin. Last night I went over to your house in Rochor.”

“I have shifted house, don’t you remember that you let me stay at the library,” said Raghu .

“Oh, yes, I forgot. Good that you came.  I have important news for you. Don’t go back to Cochin,” said Majid.

“Why not?”

“The news is all over the place that your uncle the old man Madhavan was waiting with the Police constables at the railway station. When he found that you were not in the train with Achutan, he flew into a rage, hit Achuthan with an umbrella and then collapsed. The last I heard was that the old man is at home and  paralysed,” said Majid.

“What about Achu?”

“I don’t know. He might be in league with the old man.”

“How is my mother?” asked Raghu.

“I don’t know. I used your ticket to go to Cochin. I will pay you for it. Postpone your trip,” advised Majid.

“I may never make the trip again, until that evil man dies. Nobody there wants me. Why should I return?”  said Raghu.

Raghu was surprised that he uttered the words “nobody there wants me”. When he thought about it, he realised how true it was. It was understandable that  Madhu mama did not want him, but how sad that his mother Amma and his cousin Achu could also gang up against him. But then again ,maybe Amma was not party to it. Why should she want her only son to be in jail? One day he hoped to meet her once again.  He had now to change his plans. He had to start all over again in this land, which now took on a fresh face. The timely visit of Dr Einstein had saved him from a life of misery in a Cochin jail.

A few days later, Raghu was pleasantly surprised to see a front page article in the Straits Times headlined  “Dr Albert Einstein awarded Nobel Prize”.

Raghu cut out the article for his diary.

The next day, he vacated his temporary abode, donated most of his books and used clothes to Majid and with the rest of his worldly belongings  in a suitcase, made a beeline for  the Chettiar Temple at Tank Road to offer thanksgiving  to Lord Muruga and to seek his blessings for the future for him and his mother.

After a short prayer, he sat down cross-legged on the floor of the temple hall for a free banana leaf vegetarian lunch.  Satiated, he crossed over to the Tank Road railway station with his luggage to buy a one-way ticket to Kluang.  Malaya would be his future.

[All characters in the story (other than historical persons) are fictional and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental. Names of streets, places and institutions have been mentioned only for authenticity and it should not be taken to mean that any of these events took place at these locations]


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