There was a time I could not fly; that was way back, before a teeny-weeny story appeared from the blue and changed my life. But first, let’s get proper and chronological, like Maria sings in The Sound of Music, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start …” My story begins at the southern tip of India, the only spot where black pepper was found from time immemorial, on the red laterite hilly slopes of Malabar, a destination that eluded a seafaring Spaniard—Columbus.
Brahma, the Creator, had accidentally spilled an excess dose of pristine splendor on this narrow strip of backwaters, with its placid lagoons and narrow rivers. In winter, when migrating teals arrive from the northern Himalayan valleys, they skip the neighboring states to land in this ménage of lakes, rivers, and rice fields.
Born in this serene land, I completed my studies and joined a construction firm straight out of college. From day one they sent me orbiting through myriad locales in India to build petrochemical factories. After 12 years of wandering, my promotion finally arrived, like manna from heaven, with a transfer to the design department. The cushy assignment everyone dreamed of—H.Q. posting, no traveling, or relocating to distant, dismal sites. My wife could finally have a permanent kitchen garden.
Since this was a federal job, our employment was guaranteed till retirement, unless one did something wacky like beat up the managing director or hit on the boss’s spouse. The pay was modest and allowed a frugal, yet content life. On Sundays I would get fresh halal meat from the local butcher, and my wife delighted us with biriyani—an orgy of hot and sweet spices, served with traditional splendor—on banana leaves. Soon, my midriff began to emerge, slowing my gait, so I could smell the jasmine.
Each day was blissfully predictable: leave home in the morning at 8:45 on my Lambrettera scooter, punch in at 8:55 on the dot. In the evening, a time bomb was set to explode at 5:15 in our office—that’s how we explained to customers why the building was deserted soon after 5.
Our company had a hospital, a school, and even a club with a swimming pool. The pool being taken over by frogs, we only used the bar and restaurant. At the office canteen, a subsidized sumptuous lunch was served with rice, sambar, masala buttermilk, and hot lemon pickles, all for a meager half U.S. penny.
Promotions were strictly on seniority basis—the unions saw to it— like an Orwellian Animal Farm, minus the pigs, ensuring the oldest, tottering employee would become the big honcho. In this first-come-first-up hierarchy, there was no competition or need for backstabbing; that was the culture of lucrative-but-shaky private companies. We had a library with technical books, but they also carried two foreign magazines: Life and National Geographic, like some modern-era forbidden apple. Like most others, I too would leaf through their glossy pages, drooling over the expensive homes, cars, luxury yachts decked with streamlined, semi-clad damsels, smiling with zero resistance.
When the Saudi and Kuwaiti construction boom arrived in the late 1970s, some of our engineers migrated to those greener pastures. We were critical: “Why abandon a lush, green oasis to move to the arid desert?” But most of us began to privately subscribe to The Times of India to scout for foreign assignments. After a year of fervently circulating my resumé, I gave up, concluding like the proverbial dejected fox: sour grapes.
We had a director, Mr. Oommen, who had served the company for 35 loyal years. I had once worked under him at a construction site on the Pakistan border. Cooped up (as we were) in a rocky place, the Stockholm syndrome must have kicked in after a while, fostering a close bond between us in spite of our age difference. During our evening walks, on a terrain screaming with a certain savage beauty, he would talk about the finer things in life. Oommen explained why Bach went well with the ambiance of the oceans, like white wine with fish; that it was good to do meticulous long-term planning of our lives, “although,” quoting Woody Allen, he would qualify, “it would bring a good laugh to the gods, for they could see farther (than us) from their elevation.” And so on.
Later, back at headquarters, when Oommen was close to retirement, he would send me funny anecdotes, short stories, and other intellectually stimulating tidbits. I remember especially one, being a tad risqué, coming from a respectful gentleman that he was: Working for the same company all your life is like kissing only one partner in a lifetime; it’s kinda nice, but you keep wondering what you are missing.
Then one day, he sent me a little story about a bird. I read the short tale and sat upright, as if struck by a bolt of lightning. A cluster of dormant neurons somewhere in my cranium abruptly reached critical mass and imploded in surreal silence. Even before the mushroom settled, I promised to myself, “Yes, I will fly again.”
Within 10 months, when I turned 40, I handed in my resignation, shocking my colleagues. It got worse when they heard I was joining a small, upstart family-run company. Then came the bizarre part—I was going to export spices. My wife did not talk to me for weeks, close friends tried to dissuade me, but I was like a bat out of hell, blindly zealous on this mission impossible. The buzzword “paradigm shift” was unknown in those days; people just called it a crazy move.
Armed with two weapons, the English language and Thomas Paine’s not-so-common common sense, I launched my spice putsch on the bland-food junkies of the occident. Within a month I was second-guessing my hara-kiri move and with the constant tension began losing my biriyani pounds. We moved from our small island town to a metropolis, into a condominium that had a shared swimming pool, sans the frogs. The giddy rise our social status was simultaneously scary and sweet. My wife worried about the fixed zombie I carried around—me trying to come to grips with a totally new career. She forced me to visit a palm reader, who benevolently scrutinized the scraggy lines of my kismat and declared with enigmatic clarity, “Your birth star, Ayilyam, is going through the pull of Shani—a very difficult period, but most achievements occur during adverse times.” We prayed a lot.
I started attending food shows abroad. At a food fair in Anaheim, Calif., I met a soft-spoken, fast-thinking Dane, who shared my hairstyle—a vast, reflecting pate like the Dalai Lama’s. Maybe the mirror effect worked, for he expressed a desire to buy our company. Then everything happened like clockwork, as if the friendly stars took over the reins over the events that followed: the Danish multinational bought us; the mild-mannered Viking got a brainwave—imagine the magic of a brown guy approaching customers to sell spices! Saved by my skin, we moved to the United States to start a new life—wooing American palates—like Marco Polo in reverse gear.
It’s been five years since I read the story, written by the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard.
This is the story of a wild duck flying northward across Europe during springtime. En route, he happened to land in a barnyard in Denmark, where he quickly made friends with the tame ducks that lived there. The wild duck enjoyed the easily available corn and water, so he decided to take a break for an hour from his strenuous journey and enjoy the stop. Feeling relaxed, he decided to stretch it for a day, then for a week, and finally for a month.
At the end of that time he contemplated flying to join his friends in the vast Northlands, but he had begun to enjoy the safety of the barnyard, and the tame ducks made him feel welcome. So he stayed on for the summer. Soon, fall came and one day he heard his wild mates passing overhead, flying toward the south. He heard their quacking, and it stirred him with delight. Enthusiastically, he flapped his wings and rose into the air to join them. Much to his dismay, he found that he could rise no higher than the height of the barn. As he waddled back to the safety of the barnyard, he muttered, “I’m satisfied here. I have plenty of food, and the fare is good. Why should I leave?” So he spent the winter on the farm.
In the spring, when the wild ducks flew overhead again, he felt a strange stirring within his breast but he did not even try to fly up to meet them. When they returned in the fall, they again invited him to join them but this time the duck did not even notice them.
There was not even the old stirring within his breast. He simply kept on eating the corn that made him fat.
A chemical engineer by training, Jayant Kamicheril now markets spices in North America for a Danish food company.