[This the second of a three-part story. Click here to read the first part.]
I arrived in Panchgani yesterday morning and took the full self guided Benoit-James Historical Panchgani Tour. That will all be elaborated on later. This post will be about today, which was reserved for the Sureka Search. Read the last post before this one if you haven’t already memorized it and set it to music.
Terri’s enthusiastic e-mail mentioned that she once worked at a restaurant across from Lucky’s in Panchgani called Russo’s and that she may be residing in a village called Godvali down the hill. No Surname. She tasked me with passing on her continued gratitude to Sureka for the love and support she gave her family all those years ago. Sherif said last he heard was that she married and went to Mahableshwar, the larger town neighbouring Panchgani. No surname. I should tell you that both of their messages were riddled with modern slang such as “dude” and “dawg”. I suspect this may be the influence of their son who has chosen a life of hip hopping. This peircing insight shows you I am clearly in detective mode.
Last night at dinner with at Baha’i family’s home they said that they know Sureka associated with NETTC (The NGO Formerly Known As NEDI) and that she is in Panchgani. This went against everything I believed in, Sureka wise, and we determined that this must be a different one, possibly named Eureka.
This morning at the Prospect Hotel, where I am staying, the kitchen staff were asked what was the last they heard was. They passed on that she should be in a nearby village named Bhilal with her kids and that her husbands name was Balu and that he was working as a tailor in Mahableshwar. No Surname.
The bus dropped me along the road and the attendant gestured towards a road going up the hill. All along the road were resorts and luxurious seasonal homes at different stages of construction. It didn’t strike me as a road to a village so I asked nearly every person I passed if I was going the right way, to which they said yes. If you want me to be totally accurate, I should say that the conversations went like this: I asked “Bhilal?” and they would reply “Bhilal.”. The first place I went to was an agricultural supply shop that looked pretty busy. I used the two pieces of information I had: woman named Sureka married to a man named Balu. Apparently both are popular names. Then I remembered that Balu was a tailor, this should narrow down all the Sureka-Balu couples they knew! Their voices got louder and eyes widened as the swelling group of swelling men tossed around the word “Balu” and “tailor”. It was beginning to look like I was going to have a hole in one here. The voices quieted and their hands went back to scratching their heads. Next a general store – nothing. Three tailors, another agricultural shop, and every general store – all nothing. It was at this point that I was reminded why I insisted to go alone on this mission – because few people would be stubborn enough to spend an afternoon in a village approaching strangers to ask for someone without any actual information. After hearing for the umpteenth time that without a surname, address or photo it was impossible, I began to believe them. I sat down on an empty market platform and grimaced for some time.
For dramatic purposes, I had set as a rule for Sureka Search 2007 not to use phones – but rather to follow all leads in person. Having shown up in the village she was in but without enough information to actually find her, I decided to break the rule. I called the hotel back to check again if the kitchen staff could think of anything else at all. They couldn’t but suggested I call Lucky’s and NETTC. The person on the phone at NETTC I couldn’t speak English and probably said that himself many times before he hung up the two times I called. Lucky’s gave me the number for one Russi Irani, the man who owned Russo’s (the restaurant that Sureka may have worked at some point, remember?). That phone call to Lucky’s somehow put into doubt all the information I had. No one picked up at the Irani residence every time I tried.
Once again, I’m in Bhilal – she’s right under my nose, or is that I am under hers? The young man who had taken interest in my case sat next to me and called over every passer by to run my information by them as I made the phone calls and grimaced. I asked him if he would take me to Sureka number one of all the Surkas in the village, and if not her then Sureka number two and so on. He wouldn’t even entertain the suggestion as it wouldn’t be appropriate because of the whole India thing. I asked if there was anybody in the village who knew everybody. He put a frail old man in front of me and said he knows English and that he could help me. The old man proceeded to explain to me very clearly and slowly in English the best way back to Panchgani.
It was disappointing to come back to Panchgani at the end of the day somehow with less information on my target than before I left. At least I found a Scrabble board in the window of one of the shops for a whopping 195 Rupees ($4.68 Canadian). I went back to Lucky’s and grimaced some more.
Masoud from dinner last night called me and proudly told me he currently was standing in Sureka’s house with is family. They were going around offering Diwali greetings to other Baha’i families. I was still quite sure this was the other one, the one possibly named Eureka. I asked him to ask her if she was ever the maid for any Canadian families – the response was negatory.
Amin Uncle asked one of their staff who could only confirm the connection to Russo’s and the Irani’s. Amin drew me a map so that I could go directly to the Irani house to ask since they weren’t picking up their phone and because he somehow knew about and respected my no phone rule.
After finishing the map, he insisted on taking me there himself anyways. He dropped me off on his scooter and told me to try my luck and returned to the shop. The house was in the middle of the empty convent school and had no vehicles outside it.
I knocked on all of the many doors and got no response. I spotted another house past it, went to it, and saw that it was clearly abandoned. On my way back from the other side, I heard a television in the first house and started knocking the nearby door one last time. A voice told me in English to push, and that it wasn’t locked. It opened to a bathroom and an elderly woman past it in the bedroom. She looked a little shocked to see me but immediately welcomed me in and invited me to sit down. I sat across from her in the bedroom with the Scrabble board on my lap and stated my case.
Mrs. Kate Irani is a lovely Parsi woman originally from Mumbai and in her eighties, she had cancer earlier and is currently afflicted with TB. She employed Sureka as a maid in the years before the Rushdys but has continued to receive visits from Sureka every time she passes through town. According to Mrs. Irani, Sureka is indeed in Mahableshwar and not Bhilal, she working in the Sari department of the large textiles shop called Palod. She is back with her husband who is a cook at a hotel and not a tailor. Her two teenage daughters are with them and working in the Mahableshwar market and son with his grandmother somewhere. Any relation to the village of Bhilal could neither be confirmed or denied. No surname. I stuck around for awhile and chatted with Mrs. Irani, we discussed the Parsi community, the Baha’i gardens in Haifa, their businesses, her family in America and cancer before I left and I promised to let her know how the search goes.
The rest of the evening was spend in the city with my Scrabble board under my arm. I ate out with a Baha’i family and spent hours watching children with Diwali firecrackers turn the streets into a war zone.
When I came back to the hotel, Shahram Uncle told me that if Muhammad had not gone to the mountain that the mountain would have come to him and that Sureka had called for me. She had heard from about 500 people that I was looking for her. Knowing how difficult it had been to find anyone with the slightest confidence as to where she even was let alone inform her of Canadian stalkers, I told him that he had he other Sureka, possibly named Eureka. We called the number she left and reached her husband at work. The facts checked out with what Mrs. Irani told me: in Mahableshwar, husband a cook, etc. He said that she would come over to meet me tomorrow.
So, dear reader – will it really be her? How did she find out about me? Will she show up? Does she even have a surname? How is she at Scrabble? Why did I go to Bhilal? Based on the Bhilal experience and my past month in India – I think it could still go either way.