My Lost Friend Sastryji
Mr. Sastry’s full name was so long, it was abbreviated to M.V.S.S.R. Sastry. Each initial letter represented the name of a major Hindu God, as if his parents were in some bind to name their son after them. Juggernaut met Mr. Sastry on the university campus when he was a graduate student.
During their first meeting, Mr. Sastry was very cordial. “You are from south India, right?” he inquired. He addressed Juggernaut with prefix Mr. and Juggernaut addressed him “Sastryji”, the suffix “ji,” a courtesy since he was older person, and also he was a staff member in the department of physics.
Sastryji was in late 40’s, a chain smoker and chewed betel nuts all the time - the two fingers of his right hand were turned brown from holding cigarettes constantly. His teeth were turned brown from smoking cigarettes and chewing betel nuts. He said he got a steady supply of betel nuts in a store owned by an Indian merchant.
Sastriji came to Trinidad some years ago to pursue graduate studies to obtain a Ph.D. Not too far from the university campus, Sastryji and Juggernaut shared a two-bed room apartment. Sastryji employed a maid, a middle-aged East Indian woman for cooking and other chores. She cooked vegetarian meals since Mr. Sastry was a strict vegetarian, being a South Indian Brahmin. The daily diet consist of boiled split peas slurry called dahl, a dish eaten in every East Indian household in Trinidad (as well as in India), vegetable curry, steamed rice with little bit of ghee. For the first few months, Juggernaut enjoyed the Brahmin meals he missed after he left home. But then, he got tired of eating this meal every day.
“I miss curry chicken and goat meat,” said Juggernaut one day.
“I didn’t expect you eat meat but it won’t bother me,” Sastryji looked surprised but then he was a very generous man, but he insisted that Juggernaut should use separate utensils.
Sastryji spent a lot of time socializing with expatriate Indian doctors who flooded Trinidad in the early seventies. Dr. Mohan one of the Indian doctors living in Trinidad visited us almost every evening though he lived miles away working in a major City Hospital. Dr. Mohan’s intention was to immigrate to the United States but he had to pass a tough qualifying test administered to screen the quality of doctors entering the United States. After failing a few times, he gave up and focussed on dating Trinidad women. He never had any trouble getting women. Because he was a doctor, the Indian women clamored for him.
Puja is a Hindu religious ritual. Pundit Jairam, an East Indian Pundit (Brahmin), also a part-time cab driver, facilitated the puja for Sastryji. Sastryji presented handsome dakshen, a monetary gift and new clothes at the end of puja to the Pundit. A few days before the planned ritual, Juggernaut cleaned up the fridge free of any meat, frozen or cooked, as symbol of obedience to old beliefs and to comply with Sastryji’s strict rules.
Sastryji and Juggernaut shopped at a store owned by Bhajanlal, an Indian merchant in Tunapuna area. Here, Sastryji got his supply of betel nuts, spices, and Indian food items. The store, stocked with stuff dumped on the floor, sold everything from underwear to cookware, mostly imported from India. Bhajanlal spoke English in Trinidad style; his sentence started with ‘Boy’ and ended with ‘naah.’ The word ‘Boy’ did not necessarily mean a young person or child and the word ‘naah’ was not negative. For example, he would say, “Boy, get these folks something to eat naah.” Every time Sastryji went to the store, Juggernaut accompanied him. Sastryji visited Bhajanlal’s wife, a sick, bed-ridden woman living upstairs in the store. Sastryji made conversations with her in Hindi, a North Indian language. Bajanlal never trusted East Indians in Trinidad, his connection with them was strictly business. On every visit, Bhajanlal treated Sastryji with respect knowing that he is a Brahmin.
Bhajanlal always offered Indian pastries, some sticky with sugar syrup and others hard like rock but sweet. Juggernaut had no complaints since it brought some nostalgia of India.
Sastryji was well known among the expatriate professors from India on the campus and he introduced Juggernaut to some of them. Professor Krishnan, a dark-skinned and curly-haired professor, after living several years in England, came to Trinidad with his British wife. In social gatherings, he behaved more British than his English wife. He left Trinidad after a short stay; Trinidad was too Indianish for him.
While Juggernaut’s graduate work was going at full swing, he had serious doubts about Sastryji completing his work any time soon. Sastryji came almost three years earlier and now almost seven years had passed since he came to Trinidad. His work was no way close to completion. He never discussed his work with anybody. Sastryji wasted time and money on Pundit Jairam and Dr. Mohan in socializing at the expense of his graduate work. Though Sastryji sent some money home, Juggernaut felt sorry for his wife and children back home. It was certain that his family missed him.
On some days, Sastryji got up from bed in the afternoon hours. He continued to smoke cigarettes like a wood-burning stove, as much as three to four packs of Broadway cigarettes, a local brand. The Indian maid emptied a plastic pail (the regular ashtray over-filled so often, the maid replaced it with a pail) full of cigarette butts and ash so often, the chore disgusted her.
The maid was always worried that Sastryji would never return to India to join his family. Juggernaut consoled her by saying how Sastryji may stay put in Trinidad like her forefathers from India.
When Juggernaut left Trinidad with a Ph.D. degree, Sastriji was still working on his thesis work. Several years after, Juggernaut contacted the University where Sastryji worked in North India. After several months, he received a letter from the University Registrar indicating that Dr. Sastry died of natural causes soon after he returned from Trinidad. His death could be anything but natural from heavy smoking for so long. The University provided Sastryji’s family address living in South India but he didn’t see any need to contact them, after all they don’t know Juggernaut
Juggernaut always wondered about his dear friend Sastryji, how he spent his time, almost a decade away from his family, just to get a diploma for a promotion to professorship that benefited neither him nor his family. He was a loser by any count. Both the Pundit and the Indian doctor wasted his time and money. Juggernaut was not sure how the regular puja helped him either, may be he received some solace from it.