THE WIFE AND THE CONCUBINE
The immigrant’s arrival
In the summer months at five o'clock the day starts to become clear. A liner rang three times its siren to announce its entry in the port of Pointe des Galets. An hour later, when the sun began to rise, the first passengers left the ship anchored offshore to embark on the small boats waiting for them to take them onto the quay.
This was the time when many people in search of a stable life, an ensure future, a peaceful and quiet corner, came into the Island. Among the disembarking passengers, a twenty year old young woman held by the hand her five year son. She had a fragile constitution and a cautious look, taking with hesitation and distrust her first steps in a world that she discovered with enthusiasm and admiration. Her behavior wasn’t too comfortable, knowing that she was in a cultures and civilizations crossroad, and she better be vigilant and careful. She wore a brightly colored sari for the occasion, the only decent clothe she found in her stuff packed in an old trunk. She wanted to make a good impression as she passed by the customs. Her head was half covered with a shawl, revealing a thick smooth and glossy hair, falling to the waistline. Her face was not as fresh as it should be, her features were marked with fatigue from the travel, and her forehead wrinkled by her worries about the future. On the other hand her light brown eyes, surmounted with long eyelashes and thick eyebrows, kept their softness and showed that she was in control of the situation. She was among the few women of her time who weren’t afraid of long journeys and agreed to take the associated risks. She had chosen this particular destination willingly, she had placed all her hopes in this island that she already called ‘the island of hope’, and greatly aroused her interest and curiosity during her journey. The island she was approaching for the first time was no longer a mystery. She was confident that her life would be quite different from the one she had known. Since her childhood, she was accustomed to witness scenes of violence and to live in fear, anxiety and worry. Her father was a merchant in the village of Gugerat, where she was raised among many brothers and sisters, all of them eventually married and gone to live where their destiny led them to. She married, at the age of fifteen, a local grocer and soon gave birth to a son. The two children, she subsequently gave birth didn’t survive to childhood diseases that raged in the region at that time. This affected her morale in such a way that she remained, for a long time, struggling against a depression that almost made her lose her mind. One morning, while her husband headed to his shop, located in one of the city main streets, he was beaten to death by some angry demonstrators who crossed his path. He was a man who gave all of his courage working hard to feed his wife and child. He had always been on good terms with the people of his neighborhood and never interfered in politics or in conflicts between the communities. He always kept himself away from the spotlight and led a life too discreet to have enemies. But on that given morning, a few attackers had crossed his path and ended his days. His wife, hearing the news, shouted and cried for a long time realizing she had lost the only man she ever loved. She felt immediately his absence and his importance to her, already thinking about a future that wouldn’t be easy with a son to raise. The community counted that day twenty dead and hundreds injured. The situation had become quite serious. Their existence had become a living hell and the population lived in insecurity and fear. Death kept an eye open for everyone. Everyone was concerned in taking their destiny in their own hands. Ms. Ghanee, now a widow, and her son, Abdel Rajack, had absolutely nothing to keep them in this village reduced to a battlefield where houses were ransacked and burned, and families brutalized, scattered and decimated. She fled with her son on the same night they buried her late husband. She went to Bombay, where she spent several days shedding tears and healing her wounds. She was living with some relatives, who had taken pity on her misfortunes, and kindly lodged her until she decided how to face the future. She thought a lot about her wretched fate, her destiny which until then didn’t spare her from misfortunes and calamities, on the hard times she went through with people who didn’t cease to struggle in a life of misery and suffering. She hold her only son tightly in her arms, imploring God to remove them from that place where life had a bitter taste, where the existence was so painful and unbearable that only death could bring relief and deliverance. She had decided to flee on the cause of her son. He was her sole reason for living. She was ready to give up everything for him. She didn’t want to see him grow up in the midst of conflict and turmoil. She also thought about the constraints of leaving everything. But she had no other alternative. It was in the utmost resignation and sadness that she left behind her family and property, to embark with her son in the first ship leaving the country.
During the journey she met some people that she kept telling them her woes to ease her heart and provide a likely reason for that journey. She had learned a lot about the human misery and showed concern about the future. She, somehow, had become aware of her situation and comprehend that she expected hard battles to fight in the coming days. From now on, and during this long journey that lasted for months, she had sympathized with many families and met many Indian women, also embarking on this voyage to avoid the misery they had known for so long. They were able to share their pain and recognize that they weren’t the only ones to have endured a hard life. They grouped together in a supportive assembly allowing them to experience hope in a better future. When Mrs. Ghanee was alone at night in a dark corner getting ready to sleep, she was assaulted, at times, by the exceptional sequences of her life and obsessed her to the point of making her sick and miserable. She said that life could be solely a succession of misfortunes and suffering. She didn’t want to witness anymore traumatizing and shocking episodes. She had seen more than enough in the few years she had lived. The flight, the distance, escaping this uncertain and painful life was the sole reason she had to get out of this uncomfortable situation. She hoped to regain confidence in life, and even if it meant making huge sacrifices, she was ready for the challenge. On the ship carrying her to her new destination, whenever she struggled with dreadful thoughts, she went seeking refuge with her friends for comfort. Many of those women were still unaware of their destination and what to expect on arrival. They preferred living in such state of mind, hopefully wishing that their living conditions would improve. They had, a long time ago, realized that they had nothing to lose, and that the risks of engaging a migration would worth it. They weren’t deceived and, at the time, there were a few good destines for asylum, waiting for them with open arms.
Mrs. Ghanee never remained alone during the hot and suffocating days. She always searched for companionship and had terror of solitude. This was the reason why she constantly waged conversation with people she had just met. That also led her to start a friendship with a young Hindu woman as fond as she to talk about the past. Sometimes they felt the wish to explore the bygone time, in their minds, which was of great importance to them. They were so tied up with this precious past that their present lives greatly depended on it. A past evoked at times with joy and other times with nostalgia. Mrs. Ghanee hasn’t taken long to win her confidence after confiding her life in detail. Her name was Ranubenjee and showed herself very outspoken when Mrs. Ghanee questioned her about her own life. It was as if she was in need of a confident given the amount of memories in the heart to share. She began to confide in her in this way.
"Since the English came settling in India, bringing with them their traditions and culture, our existence has been submitted to huge changes. Our life is trapped in a mesh that prevents us from reacting. We left ourselves to be dragged to whatever destiny. I prayed to all the gods: Brahma, Ganesha, Vishnu, Krishna, Rama. When I was still quite small, I rested in the temples with my parents and with some people seeking to ease their suffering. I must have been only eight years old when I lost my parents in deplorable circumstances. I found myself all alone in a small village. People said I was miraculously saved in a flood that swept away my parents and siblings. An old woman who had found me on the river margins looked after me before she fell ill. She died in my arms, close to a temple, while I was trying to make her drink a sip of water. I cried all night in front of her lifeless body, which I saw being cremated in a wooden pile, by the village population the day after. All these events were indelibly marked in my memory in such a way I’m unable to forget.”
And all of those who get her acquaintance during the journey couldn’t ignore the way she continued to live her life all by herself.
When Mrs. Ghanee found herself, a few weeks later, on a sunny morning, in the Port quay of Réunion Island, she was completely lost amidst a crowd of people from diverse backgrounds. The weather was pleasant. Some passengers were descending the stone stairs connecting the customs building to the courtyard stretching below; they threw themselves into the arms of their parents who were waiting for them, letting out long sighs of relief, peals of laughter and tears of joy. Mrs. Ghanee sought with her fatigued eyes the people she had met during the journey and that she would be able to recognize in the crowd. She found them happy, cheerful and smiling on cause of reuniting with their parents, their relatives and their friends. She couldn’t help it but to but share their joy, even she felt herself somewhat abandoned and alone. She comprehended that the time wasn’t appropriate for her to go ask for their assistance. She preferred to wait for a bit. A few people that she had the courage to address, during the journey, had promised to take care of her, the moment they arrived at the island. She kept hoping that it wouldn’t be long that she would be taken into consideration. The ladies from high society, dressed in long robes with joyful colors, protected by parasols marched before her with their luggage carried on the heads of the coolies that preceded them. Mrs. Ghanee held Abdel Rajack by the hand and withdrawn to a quiet corner. She exchanged a few words with some women of Indian origin, gathered a short distance away, to await the arrival of their families. She presented herself as the Mrs. Fatema Ghanee, widow, but when she noticed that no one was interested in her, she began to lose her patience; she would made the necessary inquiries to find a hostel or a guesthouse in the city.
She was completely lost in the crowd. She thought she could depend on the people she met on the ship, which had promised to help her as soon as they disembarked. In any case, she didn’t pass unnoticed. Many of the people she had met on the liner approached her, to reassure that they would look after her, as soon as they finished greeting their family and friends and collect their luggage in that uproar. She thanked them and waited patiently. She was happy, at last, to see that her friends hadn’t abandoned or forgotten her. She had lost a lot of time gathering her trunks and suitcases. She had difficulties finding coolies to bring down her suitcases and other luggage. She soon discovered a new world, with different habits and traditions. She already knew that she had a lot to learn to be comfortable in this new society. It would take some time. But didn’t she have the whole time ahead of her? She could spend it preparing her child's future. She was armed with patience and such confidence that she never lost her courage and hope. Her face expressed an absolute confidence that the Lord wouldn’t abandon her.
As she stood serene like that, under a breadfruit tree near to her luggage, enjoying the gentle shadow and the light breeze just aroused, a man of a certain age squeezed his way with difficulty through the multitude, staring at the Indian women and addressing them to inquire if they hadn’t seen a young woman accompanied by her young son. He seemed to be acquainted with all of them and stopped each time, exchanging a few polite words about the journey, and asking for news of family and friends from the land they came. Before he finally arrived at the person he was looking for, he had to wander through the quay for several times, without showing any sign of fatigue or discouragement. He explained, every time, that a young woman and her son had just disembarked on the island and they didn’t know where to go. He had heard the news from some people who had warned him of such situation, and knew that his assistance in such cases had always been valuable. When he stood before Mrs. Ghanee he was astonished by her beauty and youth. Someone less knowledgeable than him could be shocked to see a woman, alone with a young child, pleased to travel the world unaware of the dangers they faced. He knew that the reasons that drove people to embark in such a venture could be diverse, and that was unnecessary to search for a valid justification for such an endeavor. He appeared before her as a Good Samaritan. He spoke very well Gujratie.
“Are you well Ms. Ghanee, isn’t it?" Asked Mr. Soleman Vidat, looking at the same time to Abdel Rajack, who got closer to his mother and was holding her by the waist.
“Yes, sir.” Replied Mrs. Ghanee, confused.
“I heard from friends, that I just met again, that you travel alone, coming for the first time on the island and not knowing anyone?”
“That is correct, sir. Except that I'm accompanied by my son." Replied Mrs. Ghanee, lowering her eyes and caressing the head of Abdel Rajack.
“Lovely child. You had an enjoyable voyage, I hope? You look tired. That’s common. You're not accustomed to. I'm Soleman Vidat. I came here to see what I can do for you, Mrs. Ghanee. I know nothing of your story, but I can assure you that you won’t be unhappy here.”
“That’s reassuring, what you say, Mr. Vidat. I'll be more than happy, at first, to find a house not too expensive.”
“I would be most happy to find you something nice. Please follow me to the car.”
Mr. Vidat pointed to Mrs Ghanee the direction to take and stopped often along the way to exchange a few words with the people crossing by.
While Mrs. Ghanee squeezed through the crowd, heading for the exit, Mr. Vidat called out a few coolies and gave them orders to carry the luggage. Abdel Rajack followed them not dropping his eyes from her mother disappearing in the human tide.
A few minutes later Mrs. Ghanee, Abdel Rajack and Mr. Vidat were installed in a car driven by a driver of an advanced age. A beautiful landscape revealed itself under a blazing sun, whilst the gentle shadow of big banyan trees in the Plaine d’Affouches, and tamarind trees were the preferred shelters of children playing in the dirt, and of exhausted men by the unremitting work in the fields and farms. To add to this scenery, in the distance stood wooden houses with metal sheet roofs and straw huts, scattered throughout the landscape, sometimes hidden behind tall bushes, markers of the presence of people condemned to live a difficult, hard, and miserable life. Mrs. Ghanee couldn’t comprehend it all at once. The history of the country settlement couldn’t, in any way, affect her, as she was completely unaware on the manner the island was inhabited, and what men had to fight in order for peace, serenity, security and harmony to be the first impressions of a foreigner travelling through the region. Mrs. Ghanee was fascinated by the beautiful colonial houses that lined the symmetrical city streets. The pathways were mostly bordered by freestone walls, covered with moss and lichen; the gates were painted white or gray, with pointed tips erecting upwards in reminiscent of Gothic architecture. The green space was decorated by a turfed flower garden where a palm tree with fan like leaves and blazing red dark foliage, valued the exotic look of the island. The balcony was often hidden under the gentle shade of large trees presenting buttress like structures, with robust trunks and highly cleft horizontal branches, defying the warm weather season storms, while guaranteeing freshness. Large natural bouquets formed by palm trees from Madagascar, and planted next to the balcony, added to the sumptuous decor of the courtyard, embroidered with an outstanding variety of flowers.
“Mrs. Ghanee,” said Mr Vidat, “we will go straight home. You'll meet my wife and my children.”
“That's very kind of you. Are you sure it doesn’t cause you any inconvenience?” asked Mrs. Ghanee.
“If it causes me inconvenience? Not at all. We are accustomed to welcome people who arrive at the island and don’t know where to go next.”
“Actually this is a great relief for a traveler who arrives crumbling down into the island, without expecting to find someone like you. I don’t know how to thank you for your invaluable help.”
“You don’t need to thank me. It’s quite natural to provide assistance to fellow men in need. And take my word, I’m not doing this for money.”
“You mean that you don’t wish me to pay for your services. If that’s the case I won’t feel comfortable and I’ll be obliged to decline. You know, it may be the case that I find myself in this situation, but I can’t imagine benefiting from your involvement without paying you what you’re entitled. That’s impossible. It would, of course, be a pleasure to meet your wife and children, but I can’t impose myself into your family so unexpectedly. I thought you had a room for rent that I would pay honorably. I don’t wish to feel in dept with you after your help.”
“Not at all. You will be in dept of nothing. I understand you quite well Mrs. Ghanee. I wouldn’t do anything different if I was In your place. But here, in this country, you will soon find out a lot of ripping things. It is a matter of habit. When I came settling down in this island, I was also confronted with situations that don’t fit to my way of living. You too are a countrywoman who, as myself, was accustomed to a quite different culture from what you’ll find here. We shouldn’t complain, in a manner of speaking, of this state of affairs for too long, in our own best interest.”
Mrs. Ghanee made no objection, nor did she want to engage herself in a pointless discussion that would lead nowhere. She felt, deep inside, overwhelmed by an unspeakable satisfaction that she managed to hide with great difficulty. It was, still, far too premature for her to express her joy. She didn’t even want to think too much about it. In fact she could hardly believe that everything was working out, and that she had no reason to worry about what to expect in the near future.
All the concerns that she had, in the last time, were cleared and been replaced by a feeling of relief upon hearing Mr. Vidat best intentions.
The Muslim community of Port city comprised some twenty families, coming from modest backgrounds and all originated from honorable parts of northern India. These families had settled in the main streets of the city, doing business, the only occupation they knew. Their living conditions were not enviable, at best.
Their situation seemed precarious also on cause of their recent arrival in the country. Their relations were strengthen by a spirit of solidarity and a place to pray, a mosque whose minaret dominated much of the city, allowed men to meet regularly attending the compelling five day prayers. Some came to comfort their social status, struggling day and night in a hard and relentless work.
Mr. Soleman Vidat was considered to be among those who had some means. A well-known character in the city, he had a strong personality and was appreciated and respected, not only by ordinary population but also by people in high places. He spoke French well and was a good companion. He always wore a Turkish cap on his head. His face was tanned and his eyes filled with kindness and wisdom. He had the custom of welcoming, in his home, countryman he met by chance, seeking for housing; and he also helped others who knocked on his door asking for hospitality. He was cherished for such assistance. He never asked for money. He had installed a number of guest rooms, at home, with the sole purpose of accommodating those in need. Several employees worked for him, in workshops set up in the backyard, proving that his work was gaining momentum. His three sons were already married, with women from good families in the region, each occupying a room in the house and helping him in business. He had trained them in his business from a very young age. He also wanted to assure his replacement and didn’t hesitate to teach them responsibility early on, and the taste for work. At first it was very tough and he had experienced several different professions before becoming a furniture businessman. He started using fine craftsmen and began to manufacture his furniture in a tiny workshop, later on gradually enlarged in the proportion as his work earned him money.
It was in this manner that he was able to develop his business and economized to later buy the building that housed his family. He didn’t wish for his sons to go live elsewhere. Four young girls, each occupying their own rooms, contributed to house charm. They were happy, for the time being, to live under the paternal roof, and their father was in no hurry to marry them.
Mrs. Ghanee and his son Abdul Rajack occupied an upstairs room near the balcony. It was a large room, with two column beds installed at the opposing walls, and a cabinet, a dresser, a table and two chairs completing the furniture. On the pale green wall, paintings of the largest mosques in the Arab world were hanged up, recalling the great moments of the Islam conquests. A room was also provided for the prayers with a Muslim rosary and a Koran carefully placed on a corner shelf.
Mrs. Ghanee wouldn’t return. She was living the current times as in a dream. Her luggage, carried by Mr. Vidat employees, was left in a small and empty adjoining room. Mrs. Ghanee went greeting Mrs. Vidat, exchanging amicable words with her, thanking her for the hospitality time and again, meeting the children and the other family members. She then went to her room, changed her dress and came to settle in the large living room, where Mrs. Vidat had invited her to get better acquainted, before sitting down to eat in the dining room where the rest of the family gathered for lunch.
“I never imagined” said Mrs. Ghanee, “that an island so far from the major continents could offer so much comfort and serenity. You lead a peaceful life here that delights me.”
“We have very little countrymen here” said Mr. Vidat, “but as soon as I set foot on this land I realized that if we manage to hang on to our roots, to preserve our culture and traditions, we’ll be able to build our future and the future of our children, to arrange our lives according to our wishes and aspirations, without having to live in fear that our lives are at risk, as is the case throughout the island. We’re not living here in fright, possessing the means, in addition, to engage in a work and earn a living for ourselves. All these people that we meet are just like us. Here is a haven port and we all come from elsewhere: Africa, Asia or Europe. This is a French colony and the law allows us all the possibility of living with great freedom. We have no reason not to enjoy it.”
“I'm glad that you taught me that. If you only knew how I am apprehensive about the future that awaits me. I have a son to raise and I’ll do my best to make his life comfortable and to save him from the misery and suffering that I have known." She then alluded to the troubles she had endured in her country and showed astonishment with this organized, orderly and disciplined life; during the short time she led scrutinizing a society only now beginning to be discovered, she start to understand a lot of things that could help her to take, in due course, important decisions. She was curious and very attentive to what she was told.
“We were in the same situation as you are now,” told Mrs. Vidat “when fifteen years ago we arrived in the city without knowing anyone. We hadn’t brought with us much money and already had five children to feed. If you can imagine how we had to fight, for a long time, in order to make a living and survive. Fortunately, some people, that we weren’t acquainted with, helped us in true goodness and we could render our efforts to improve our situation. However, I must admit, however, that we were surrounded by people who were willing to help others, seeking neither benefits nor favors, just finding pleasure and satisfaction in their actions. I have no regrets, whatsoever, to find myself living in this society inspiring so much confidence that I dare predicting that, in the future, our children will be safer here than anywhere else. It’s my conviction although I can’t precise why. Our life hadn’t been enjoyable, from where we are from, in one of the remotest parts of India, that you probably also know. We were cooped up in a tiny room, barely larger than this room, moreover placed in the middle of a shantytown, where it wasn’t agreeable to live, at all. Our life there, on cause of the scorching day heat, the constant hissing of the people, and the difficulty of finding work, was hellish. When the new landlords positioned the heavy machinery to flatten their miserable little houses, in order to build high buildings, exodus took place forcing us to abandon the area and seek shelter elsewhere until my brother, a missionary traveling the world to teach the precepts of Islam, asked us to follow him to an island where he knew many people and we could live peacefully. He made all the necessary arrangements to embark us on the ship but, during the journey, he fell gravely ill and died. May he be blessed. He pointed us to where we could live in peace. We don’t regret it, and we are pleased with our lives that we organize according to our desire and will.”
Mr. Soleman Vidat convinced Mrs. Ghanee to stay with him for some time. She didn’t wish to abuse his welcome and cause any inconvenience. He explained that it wouldn’t be easy for her to find a suitable accommodation in the city. In his house there was room for her and food on the table. She didn’t need to be worried. She'd better use her time to know Port city and visit the other areas of the island. She could get acquainted with the other Muslim families. She would have the time to make her choice before reaching a decision. Also, she could get an idea of what she should do for work. Mr. Vidat wished to ease things for her so that she wouldn’t make mistakes by acting hastily. She comprehended that, actually, the best solution for her was trying to grasp everything before attempting to do whatever it was She wasn’t counting, of course, to be too long. Mr. Vidat had helped her more than she could expect.