Al Khobar, Chai Wallah, Expats in Saudi, Indian man who bought a village, Jack Hammersley, Kerala, Mahatma Gandhi, Siddiqui, Skypak, Tales of Saudi Arabia, The legend of Ragavan film, The man from Kerala
I was twenty-seven then and had just inherited the company villa that my Australian boss and his family had left to relocate to a more senior job in Jeddah.
It was located in a suburb where the local people lived. No expat compounds for me and I loved it.
There was no swimming pool and it wasn’t luxurious by any standards though it did have those old cartridge type air-conditioners under the windows. I would have died from the heat if not.
I furnished it as best I could with my Persian and Pakistani rugs which gave it a homely feeling; my photos, books and other bits and bobs. There was a dried-out walled garden at the back with some bamboo trees in a corner, a sand-covered red flowered bougainvillaea and a single tall palm tree right in the centre.
Along with the house I inherited the Chai Wallah.
He was a very small and wizened old man who came from Kerala in Southern India, and his name was Ragavan. He loved to get around in baggy white cotton shorts and he never wore shoes. He reminded me and my work colleagues of Mahatma Gandhi. We re-named him Ragman which he loved.
I never knew for sure but I believe he was over seventy when I first met him. He had worked in Saudi Arabia as a servant for over thirty years then and had never returned home to visit his wife and children.
For me I was always busy; we worked six days a week and I was hardly ever at home except to sleep. But Ragman always showed up out of the blue and he would always wake me up with a cup of sweet tea early in the mornings.
The house had three bedrooms and one day it occurred to me to ask Ragman where he slept. Nodding his head from side to side as if it was disconnected from his body he replied “I am sleeping under the tree in the garden. I am happy there.”
Alcohol is strictly banned in Saudi Arabia but we expats knew our way around the issue. I used to buy a bottle of pure siddiqui now and again from the back of a local shop. You had to cut it one in ten or die from poisoning, but when you got it right it made a great gin and tonic! I kept it in my fridge in an innocent looking plastic water bottle.
One night I hosted a dinner party for some friends and Ragman cooked the entire meal. It was a series of wonderful Indian dishes one after the other and everyone was very impressed. The food was Madras style and hot as hell so I asked Ragman to kindly bring water for my guests. Of course, he poured them each a glass of pure siddiqui and that really livened up the party. The enamel on my teeth has never been the same.
Ragman not only worked in my house but he also worked as the Chai Wallah and general cleaner-upper at my office which was two miles from where we lived in the villa.
One day I asked him how he got to work and he replied in his inimitable fashion “Sir, I am walking.”
So I bought him a bicycle. It was all black and had a little headlamp and a basket at the front. You see for me he was not just an employee, he was also a friend.
When I gave it to him he couldn’t believe it. He said it was the best gift anyone had ever given him in his whole life, and he cried floods of tears that ran down his old crinkled face.
He left me not long after as he followed his old boss to live in Jeddah as they had a baby who he wanted to care for. I missed his smiles and his joy of life.
Years later I heard from a work colleague that he had gone back to retire with his family in Kerala. Before he left me in Dhahran I had given him $100 in cash.
The legend goes he bought a farm with his savings, and he took his beloved bicycle with him . . .
I have never met a more humble man in all my life, and it would be a great honour if he still remembers me.